How are you isn’t the only Middle Eastern restaurant here in Southern California to offer Chipotle-style cafeteria dining. For example, Tel Aviv Grill in the SF Valley does it, and very well.
But like Chipotle, Cava isn’t just a place to go for a meal, it’s a cultural phenomenon that almost (but not quite) happened overnight, with more than 80 branches and dips. and Cava brand spreads sold at 250 Whole Foods.
It all started in 2006 with three friends (Ted, Ike, and Dimitri), a bunch of family recipes, and a single sit-down restaurant called Cava Mezze, which opened in Rockville, Maryland. Now, Cava is seemingly everywhere. Which is damn impressive! But then, eating at Cava, it’s easy to understand why.
The process is simple and eminently familiar to those of us who have followed the rise (or is it the comeback?) of the fast casual cafeteria dining experience – which for too long had fallen into decline, with mall restaurants like Panda Express defining style.
Some of America’s best chefs serve their chow from lines these days. I was in Washington, DC a few weeks ago, and ate at Chef Saint Jose Andres’ line-style salad restaurant – Beefsteak – on the campus of George Washington University. Young college students, happy to follow Andres’ notion of plant-based meals, sprawled out the door and onto the street. It’s “good food in the neighborhood” – as Applebee’s slogan goes.
Cava, on the other hand, is found in neighborhoods across America, often defined by their heavy lunch crowds from surrounding Dilbert-style box farms or college crowds; there are branches at USC and UCLA. And in El Segundo, Cava is right on Rosecrans and Sepulveda, in the middle of a duo of busy malls, with plenty of options – Cava standing out as one of the quickest, easiest, cheapest and, of course, the healthiest. It hits all the highlights of how we like to eat these days.
Getting back to the process: you choose from one of many bowls – “Build It” as it says on the menu. The options for the most part are greens and grains – either separately or mixed together, for those who can’t decide. Greens and grains, they are good for the body.
The grains lean toward saffron basmati rice, brown basmati rice, and black lentils. Delicious. And yes, there is also a quinoa option, served as a tabbouleh made with cauliflower and quinoa, which I believe appears on healthy menus under the law. At least this year. The jury is still out on whether quinoa is here to stay or if it’s the flavor of the moment. Like cauliflower rice, I’m not sure it has legs.
And, yes, greens include arugula, as required by the same law. I expect the arugula to be there forever. I like arugula. (Although I like the radicchio even more. But that’s me, I’m going with the crunch.)
Anyway, once you’ve chosen your bowl or pita, if you want a wrap, there are dips and spreads like tzatziki, eggplant and red pepper, hummus, hummus roasted red pepper, feta and spicy harissa. By all means, grab the hummus — it holds the whole bowl together. Protein goes to chicken, falafel, grilled meatballs, braised lamb, seasonal roasted vegetables, and spiced lamb meatballs.
There are toppings that allow you to create a completely crazy concoction, topped with coleslaw, tomatoes and onions, pickled onions, pickled banana peppers, kalamata olives and of course pita chips.
It’s at this point that your well-crafted bowl of Cava can transform into an edible Tower of Babel, reaching architectural limits. And, of course, it all has to be topped with a dressing – including yogurt dill, lemon herb tahini, green harissa, Sriracha, Greek yogurt and more.
The end result is a meal of, as the menu tells us, “Food that fills you up…and fills you up too.”
For those with dietary peccadilloes, there are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan, and soy-free ingredients. In a way, this defines our culinary age – an age where we worry about what we eat. We are further told, “We don’t use peanuts, tree nuts, or any other kind of nuts. We also do not use eggs. Some of our menu items contain sesame. We live in a time of culinary anxiety. For some people. For others, it’s fast food, it’s not fast food. It’s good food made quickly. There are blessings to be had here.
Merrill Shindler is a freelance food critic based in Los Angeles. Email [email protected]
How are you
- Rating: 2.5 stars
- Address: La Pointe, Avenue Rosecrans and Boulevard El Segundo, El Segundo
- Information: 424-208-1089, www.cava.com
- Food: Mediterranean
- When: Lunch and dinner, daily
- Details: Soft drink; no reservations
- Atmosphere: What started as a single restaurant concept in Rockville, MD has grown to over 80 locations coast-to-coast, as well as 10 dips and spreads at over 250 Whole Foods, with an outpost in the restaurant-rich outdoor mall The Point, offering Chipotle-style meals, built around Mediterranean bowls – always a healthy choice.
- Prices: About $15 per person
- Suggested dishes: 8 bowls ($10.67 – $13.91), 4 chef prepared bowls ($10.67 – $13.91), 5 pitas ($10.67 – $13.91), 4 pitas prepared by the chef ($10.67-$13.91), roasted vegetable side dish ($2.95), falafel side dish ($2.95), seasonal soup ($3.97)
- Credit card: CM, V
- What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, if not outstanding. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly not worth it to describe.)