Not too long ago, fast food was synonymous with one thing: junk. Then for a while it was semi-junk masquerading as health food, with iffy ingredients and hidden diet saboteurs.
Thankfully, we're now in a golden age of seasonal, healthy fast casual dining, as the trend takes off across the country, and the standout on the scene is definitely Sweetgreen—the upscale salad joint that has transformed what it means to make your own salad by offering only locally sourced and organic ingredients. (No wonder it's spreading like wildfire.)
Other restaurants have definitely taken note. “Fast casual restaurant brands using higher-quality ingredients with made-to-order menu offerings are expanding informal eating-out demand,” says Matt DiFrisco, senior restaurant analyst and director at Guggenheim Securities. (That's MBA speak for: People are crazy for them.)
Here, in alphabetical order, are eight of the best new healthy fast casual hotspots—any of which could emerge as the next Sweetgreen.
Asian Box is all about recreating the experience and flavors you'd get from an Asian street stall, but "farm-to-box" style. “We saw the need for the next generation of Asian food that uses fresh ingredients,” says Frank Klein, the company's CEO and co-founder. That means locally sourced ingredients where possible and no fillers, additives, hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics. Customers pick a base (brown rice, jasmine rice, Asian salad, or chilled rice noodles), a protein (think chicken, pork, tofu, or shrimp), then add fresh toppings (like bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, or pickled vegetables), and drizzle on a sauce, all of which are made in-house.
Where to find them: California! For now, they're in the San Francisco Bay Area (three locations) and Los Angeles (one), but that’s just the beginning. The company plans to open five more stores this year in Irvine, San Jose, Campbell, Santa Monica, and one more in San Francisco.
What to order: Though the options are pretty endless, Klein’s favorite combo is tofu coconut curry over brown rice, topped with Miss Jones' Sriracha sauce.
Who knew vegetables could be so sexy? James Beard Award-winning chef Jose Andrés, that's who, and he jumped on the fast casual train with the hopes of spreading the fresh, seasonal veggies gospel. Beefsteak's build-a-bowl formula combines a variety of textures: grains, smooth sauces, and dressings, as well as crunchy toppings. As for the name, it refers to the gorgeous, hearty tomato, not the meat.
Where to find them: There are currently two locations—both in Washington, DC—with three more opening this year (in Bethesda, MD; Philadelphia; and another in DC).
What to order: The signature Eden Bowl is awesome, but Andrés' favorite menu item doesn’t actually come in a bowl. “My beefsteak tomato sandwich is back this summer!” he says. It's got tomato-herbed mayo, avocado, pickled red onions, and sprouts on a brioche bun. Mmmm.
"Vegan" and "comfort food" don't usually go hand-in-hand, but By Chloe is changing that, offering a super creative, veggie-centric take on pastas, salads, and burgers (read: guac!)—all with locally sourced ingredients when possible.
“We always strive to innovate, presenting plant-based, vegan menu options to the masses as a delicious and wholesome dining option,” says Samantha Wasser, the brand's co-founder and creative director.
Where to find them: By Chloe's flagship location is in New York City's Greenwich Village, but this summer it's also opening new stores in Flatiron and SoHo, as well as Los Angeles (at the new 365 by Whole Foods concept store), and Boston (at the Seaport). Plus, there's a bakery in the works—deets TBD.
What to order: The list of delectable menu options is enough to paralyze anyone. But Wasser suggests The Guac Burger, Detox Kale Salad, and the Pesto Meatball Sandwich. Oh, and grab some Kale Artichoke Dip, too.
Inspired by the Greek and Mediterranean roots of its three founders, Cava Grill lets customers build bowls and pita sandwiches filled with favorites, like falafel, as well as as tzatziki, feta, harissa, and grilled chicken, lamb, or beef. The menu offers a playful take on the classics, like Sriracha Greek yogurt dressing, or the “crazy feta”—a jalapeño-infused feta mousse.
Where to find them: There are currently 16 locations in and around Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. Up next? New restaurants in New York City (Union Square), LA (Culver City), and Virginia (Vienna and Gainesville).
What to order: Chef and co-founder Dimitri Moshovitis is all about the saffron basmati rice and black lentils with roasted red pepper hummus, tzatziki, crazy feta, half chicken and half braised lamb, tomato and onion salad, Gordy’s pickled banana peppers, and harissa dressing. A delicious mouthful in every way.
Described as a modern farm stand, Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop is totally focused on offering local, organic ingredients, as well as a communal dining experience. As chef and owner Jon Rollo says, “At our heart, we are family, fueled by a passion to live a healthy life.” The menu is fresh and simple, with customizable salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and tacos—perfect for any meal of the day.
Where to find them: Currently, there are six locations in the Los Angeles area, with more on the way there—and beyond. “We’ll be building two to three more every year across the country,” Rollo says.
What to order: Chef Rollo's go-to is the Zorra the Great Salad with grilled chicken. It’s exploding with greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, red onion, fresh herbs, artichokes, and ricotta salata on hummus, all topped with a garlic herb vinaigrette.
This Miami-based cevicheria combines super fresh seafood, bright fruits and veggies, and fresh Latin flavors. Customers can order traditional style ceviche, or have it served in a bowl (over mixed lettuce, coconut jasmine rice, or cilantro quinoa), or try the burritos (and burrito bowls), salads, and tacos. “We’re breaking the barrier that ceviche is something you can only have at a fine dining restaurant,” says chef Sam Gorenstein.
Where to find them: For now, Florida. My Ceviche has four locations (Brickell, Coral Gables, South Beach, and South Miami), with two additional Miami locations in the works.
What to order: Gorenstein’s favorite is the rocoto ceviche—lime juice and rocoto peppers (a Peruvian variety) with mahi mahi. “It’s the perfect dish, especially when it’s 90 degrees outside,” says Gorenstein.
“Our mission has always been to change the way people eat on the go by providing quick, healthy fare in an upbeat environment,” says Samir Wagle, CEO of Protein Bar. That means food that's (duh) high in protein, but also packed with fiber and low on refined sugar. The menu is pretty comprehensive—including breakfast, salads, burritos (wrapped in whole wheat flaxseed tortillas), and bowls—so there's something for just about every dietary need and taste preference.
Where to find them: Protein Bar has 19 restaurants in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Colorado (Denver and Boulder), with new locations slated for Chicago's Loop (May) and downtown Denver (June).
What to order: Wagle's current favorite is the superfood vegan salad: roasted organic tofu, kale, toasted hemp seeds, chickpeas, and creamy chia dressing over greens. Don’t forget to add avocado!
It’s official. We are in the midst of a poké boom. And ever since Sweetfin Poké opened last year in Santa Monica, people have been lining up for bowls that put a California spin on the traditional marinated raw fish salad. The menu features sustainable and responsibly caught seafood, and the sauces are made in-house.
Where to find them: In addition to the Santa Monica restaurant, Sweetfin has stores opening in Larchmont, Westwood, and Woodland Hills this summer. And there are hopes for non-California locations, too.
What to order: Co-founder Seth Cohen likes to build a bowl with a bamboo rice base, snapper, and the yuzu kosho sauce (which is citrusy and slightly spicy). He tops it with avocado, crispy onions, chile oil, edamame, and cucumbers. “It’s the perfect combination of freshness, heat, and citrus,” he says.
Still hungry for easy, nutritious eats? How to host the bowl-inspired dinner party of your dreams. Or chow down on these affordable superfoods.
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