A growing flock of fast-casual restaurants are closing the gap between quickness and quality.
Does it seem like the Golden Arches have lost a bit of their luster these days? Heightened awareness about the health, labor and environmental realities of fast food has incited a major paradigm shift for an industry that for decades chugged along unchecked. Meanwhile, in cosmopolitan cities around the country, the trend of comforting meat-heavy cuisine has begun to give way to a lighter touch, such as at celebrated vegetable-forward restaurants Semilla in Brooklyn and Grace in Chicago. Combine a quick-service revolution with a new reverence for the range and possibilities of veg-forward cuisine, and something interesting starts to happen: A growing flock of fast-casual restaurants are closing the gap between quickness and quality.
With an emphasis on responsibly sourced ingredients and mindful, health-conscious menus, these spots are actively changing the way we think about fast food.
PIONEERS MAKING MOVES
Clover Food Lab, Boston
Ayr Muir says he was driven by environmental motives when he opened the first location of Clover Food Lab in 2010. “I started with this idea that if we could change what people are eating then we could change the world,” he says. “I wanted to convince people who were not vegetarian to swap out just a couple meals a month.” Today, Muir operates six fast-food restaurants and seven trucks in the Boston area, all serving a rapidly changing menu of vegetarian fare derived almost entirely from regional ingredients. At the height of market season, he estimates that 90 cents of every dollar he spends on food goes to a local purveyor; even during the winter, that figure can be as high as 60 cents. Muir accomplishes this by staying nimble and finding resourceful ways to adapt to available ingredients—a recent windfall of local garlic resulted in an entire menu of garlicky soups, sandwiches and spreads. Muir also interfaces with the Boston community, running CSA pickup sites at his restaurants and opening up his weekly development meetings to the public. Expect to see even more from Clover over the next year—Muir says the business is doubling in size, including a DC expansion, in 2016. cloverfoodlab.com
The Cinnamon Snail, New York
“I don’t eat a lot of sh*t that is terrible for the world,” says Adam Sobel, who became vegan the day his eldest daughter was born and has been bringing the food he loves to the streets of New York City via his food truck the Cinnamon Snail since 2010. “Our food is designed to destroy the preconceptions some people have about the limitations of vegan cuisine,” he says. To that end, Sobel might offer a baroque “burger” topped with Korean gochujang, kimchi and black sesame gomashio on the same menu that offers a lovely stack of fig pancakes with pine nut “butter” and blood orange syrup infused with chamomile. After years battling the draconian laws governing food trucks in New York, Sobel began hatching plans to lay down some sturdier roots. Look out for the Cinnamon Snail’s first brick-and-mortar location, opening in Manhattan this fall. cinnamonsnail.com
NEWCOMERS MAKING WAVES
Superiority Burger, New York
Brooks Headley’s journey from James Beard Award–winning pastry chef at Del Posto to darling of the new vegetarian vernacular began with a philosophical dilemma. “I’ve always had a moral quandary with fine dining restaurants—that they aren't for everyone,” he says. “Some people just won’t or can’t spend that much money on food. I wanted to figure out a way to use volume as an advantage, so that I could sell a lot of high-quality food for cheap.” Headley’s quinoa veggie burgers, topped with Muenster cheese, pickles and iceberg lettuce, rattled the masses when he began offering them at pop-ups in 2014; by the time he opened his own storefront this past June, Superiority Burger had enough grapevine credibility to become an instant hit. Headley says the experience of cooking in a four-star restaurant actually isn’t all that different from prepping food in a 300-square-foot space in the East Village. The food is just as intentional and thoughtful, he says, “we just aren’t making stuff that goes on big, fancy china—it goes into paper boats, in smaller portions. The whole idea is that everything should be impactful.” In addition to the burgers, Headley and his team devise sides, lots of daily specials—like a castelfranco salad with charred-lemon vinaigrette—and, naturally for a pastry chef, a solid lineup of gelati and sorbets. superiorityburger.com
Madcapra, Los Angeles
Chefs Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson moved the needle with their exceptional Middle Eastern fare at Brooklyn’s Glasserie before heading west together to open this falafel outfit in LA’s Grand Central Market. “Falafel is a street food that hasn't been explored that much,” says Kramer. “We wanted to update it, provide more options, push forward the idea that falafel can be contemporary, interesting and delicious without being traditional.” Reconfiguring their restaurant kitchen instincts to work in a fast-casual context resulted in some cool innovations. The square chickpea-and-fava-bean patties—Instagram sensations in their own right—are prepped with a meat grinder, then pressed into sheet pans, cut and frozen so that the chefs can easily break them apart and fry to order. But otherwise, Kramer and Hymanson keep things pretty simple: Just four falafel sandwiches named for their primary colors (“green” is topped with cilantro and mint; “orange” features shredded carrots) and wrapped up in grilled flatbread. madcapra.com
Ramen Hood, Los Angeles
If the name triggers for you any folkloric instincts to “take from the rich and give to the poor,” you’re on the right track. The Gorbals chef Ilan Hall and his band of merry men plan to bring unctuous ramen broth to a more ascetic crowd at their vegan noodle shop, joining Madcapra in Grand Central Market this fall. Hall had an epiphany when he found himself sipping on the broth left over from a batch of pressure-cooked sunflower seeds at Gorbals. Silky and rich and blasted with umami, the broth would become the foundation for all four of the soup styles Hall will offer at Ramen Hood. “You aren't going to mistake it for pork broth, but you are going to be just as happy and satisfied with it,” he says. “I wanted a meat eater to be able to come here and not care that he or she is eating vegan.” Guests can choose between two varieties of vegan noodles from Sun Noodle and will be able to add a fake egg—a modernist wonder that will mimic the texture of the classic Japanese ajitsuke tamago. grandcentralmarket.com
by CHLOE., New York
Chloe Coscarelli has spent a lot of time navigating the stereotypes that surround vegan cuisine—that it’s all raw; that it can’t be hearty or satisfying; that it’s texture-less slop. And the California native is the first to point out that a lot of the highly processed protein substitutes out there don’t do the food any favors. “A lot of the fake meats and cheeses provide a low incentive to the masses to give this food a chance,” she says. So Coscarelli set her sights on appealing to a wider audience with familiar flavors and preparations reimagined with from-scratch, plant-based ingredients. The bacon on her kale Caesar is actually thinly sliced, generously salted and oiled shiitake mushrooms; the creamy sauce on her mac and cheese is a blend of sweet potato and cashews; the whipped cream on her brunch pancakes is made with coconut. Speaking of brunch, by CHLOE.’s first weekend service drew lines around the block—proof positive for Coscarelli that the city is ready for more meatless meals. She’s opening a second location of by CHLOE. in the Flatiron District this spring. bychefchloe.com
Beefsteak, Washington, DC
The chow line setup at this veg-forward project from Spanish cuisine kingpin José Andrés will be familiar to anyone who has ever navigated a Chipotle. But a meal at Beefsteak starts with the vegetables—guests select their own produce at a “harvest station,” then move down the line to choose among grains, greens, sauces, healthy toppings and even a modest amount of meat while the vegetables are blanched. There are currently two Beefsteak locations in DC with more expansion on the way. In the meantime, executive chef Pat Peterson says the restaurant has been busy developing relationships with farms and co-ops in northern Virginia to keep those harvest stations stocked with regional produce. beefsteakveggies.com
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