Free falafel is a fine way to make friends. Alon Mor, the founder of Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, makes sure that customers are handed deep-fried spiced garbanzo-bean fritters as soon as they walk in the door of one of his restaurants. He also has a "just ask" policy that allows them to try anything on the menu before they order.
"I felt extremely confident that a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant was just what Colorado — and the country, for that matter — needed," says Mor, who opened his first Garbanzo in an old pizza joint in 2007. "I knew there would be an education factor. Not everyone knows what falafel, babaganoush or shwarma is, but I knew that once they tried it, they'd love it. That is partially why we offer the falafel sample. If they are new to Garbanzo, letting them try something they may not even know how to pronounce is a great way to give them a taste of what's to come. And it makes the whole ordering process a little less intimidating."
Over the past decade, an upward trend in America's fast-food market has favored fast-casual restaurants, with diners jonesing for healthy, ethnic and freshly prepared foods — and willing to screw the burger-fries-soda triad and even fork over a few extra dollars in order to have a quick optional food fix without the full-on table service of traditional sit-down restaurants. Colorado is on the cutting edge of this movement, having given birth to trendy fast-casual chains like Noodles & Company, Smashburger and that golden child, Chipotle Mexican Grill. And while at first glance it might seem that Garbanzo has thrust its pitas into a mighty crowded collection of "fast-cazh" stores that all offer the same colorful construction line of ingredients, it has something the others don't: the exotic spice of the Middle East — but without the cloying pan-flute music or billows of hookah smoke of so many sit-down Middle Eastern spots.
Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill
630 South Colorado Boulevard, Glendale
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill
Basic portobello plate with eggplant $8.08
Steak kabob plate.... $9.99
There are other Mediterranean fast-casual chains — Chicago-based Roti Mediterranean Grill has fifteen locations in three states and the District of Columbia, and one of my personal favorites, Canada's Pita Pit, has gone international, with close to 400 locations, many of which are here in the States — each offering a different take on a menu base of hummus, pita, salads and grilled lean meats. But they all seem to have one thing in common: They're growing like weeds. Since opening his first restaurant in Denver five years ago, Mor — a twenty-year veteran of the food industry and a self-proclaimed foodie — has grown his company to fourteen locations. And after visiting the Garbanzo at 630 South Colorado Boulevard, I can see why.
Slide show: Garbanzo on Colorado Boulevard
At 4:30 p.m. one recent afternoon, the spartan dining room — hard plastic booths, tiled floor, green-and-orange walls — was empty except for me munching on my free falafel nugget (moist on the inside and well-seasoned, with a perfectly crispy shell) and intently studying the huge, carnival-colored menu boards to figure out how and what to order. You start by choosing a setup: a pita (white or wheat, baked on site) to stuff, or laffaa (burrito-style wrap) to fill, or an actual plate to load up with golden-hued turmeric rice, your choice of protein, salads and sauces. Clever little tags on everything clearly demarcated gluten-free, dairy-free and meatless options. An employee with enough zippy cheer to fill a dozen happy pitas provided additional information as he walked me through the cafeteria-style bar, describing the various items: steak or chicken shwarma (a Middle Eastern term for roasted meat) served on or off a char-broiled kabob with red and green bell peppers and red onion chunks; pickled red cabbage; bright, parsley-infused tabouleh (bulgur wheat salad); beet-red pickled eggplant and pale green cucumber pickles; feta cheese; hard-boiled egg; crisp romaine salad; smoothly whipped hummus and a lightly herbed and dressed cucumber-tomato salad. And, of course, babaganoush.
Which I couldn't resist ordering, since saying "babaganoush" three times fast is almost as much fun as eating it. I also ordered a plate with grilled eggplant, grilled portobello mushrooms and small scoops of every salad; a steak kabob plate with rice; and the signature fresh mint lemonade. Then I collected the two oven-hot pitas — white and wheat — that came with the plates, and found a seat.
The inspiration for the recipes came from Mor's grandmother in Israel. "I grew up along the Mediterranean Sea," he says, "and one of my fondest memories is visiting the farmers' markets with my grandmother to purchase fresh herbs and spices. We would return home with all the ingredients and hand-make falafel, salads and sauces for the whole family. When developing our menu years ago, it wasn't uncommon for me to call up my grandmother or mother and ask for recipe ideas. And any new menu items we add today are still fully scrutinized to ensure they have the same flavor profiles and authentic tastes I remember as a child."
At 5 p.m., the once-vacant dining room filled up quickly, bodies curling around the chow line like an animated ribbon. I was astonished by how people flew through. I was also amazed by how much quality food I got for around $10 a plate — drink and add-ons included. The mushrooms were dense and meaty, the eggplant smoky, tender and char-striped. And while both the romaine and the cucumber-tomato salads were too bland for my taste — both could have used a dose of olive-oil-lemon-vinegar dressing — the hummus and babaganoush were standouts. Garbanzo's housemade hummus is smooth as whipped cream, with virtually no graininess, and enough tahini to flavor but not overwhelm the natural earthiness of the mashed beans. It takes some skill to make babaganoush that has both a silky consistency and just enough meaty eggplant pulp to give it a dense mouthfeel; Garbanzo nailed it to tangy, smoky perfection. I licked the empty cup like a feral cat.
Mor is a fan of the tahini and garbanzo beans, too. "We import our tahini from the Mediterranean region to make certain it's as authentic and flavorful as possible," he explains, "and garbanzo beans are not only our namesake, they are also a key ingredient in our menu. They are used in both our hummus and falafel, two signature dishes, but in very different ways. For the hummus, they are boiled, then ground into a fine paste to make the dish creamy. And for falafel, the boiled beans aren't ground as fine to help create the crunchy texture of the falafel ball. I think that shows the versatility of this little bean and why it is a mainstay in the Mediterranean diet."
The only place I found Garbanzo lacking was in the dessert lineup. I saw a few whole apples at the bar, which were appropriate given the lean nature of the menu. Traditional Mediterranean desserts tend to run toward the unhealthy: honey-drenched baklava, sugar syrup-soaked bird's-nest pastries and the like. I can live without the hookahs and pan-flute music. But how about a little light frozen yogurt flavored with rosewater and cardamom, or fruit and nut-stuffed dates?
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Sadly, that's not in Mor's game plan. Instead, he's looking to push his current concept. "This year we will see the first Garbanzo locations open outside the borders of Colorado through both company-owned and franchise expansion," he says. "We have plans to continue growth within the state, opening new restaurants in Denver and the surrounding areas, and we're currently planning to expand into the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area with new company locations, and will make those new store announcements later this year." But despite his expansion plans, his heart remains here.
"I have lived in Denver for many years, and chose to raise my family and launch my company here because of the strong sense of community and support for local businesses," Mor says. "Who we are as a brand has a lot to do with the Denver community. Their loyalty and enthusiasm behind the brand keeps us excited and always looking for new ways to surprise and serve them."
Babaganoush, babaganoush, babaganoush.
Slide show: Garbanzo on Colorado Boulevard