Cafe Society

Denver's five best homegrown, fast-casual chains -- from Noodles to Chipotle

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5. Noodles & Company This fast-casual pasta spot opened its first restaurant in Cherry Creek in the mid-1990s, offering noodle bowls in all colors and flavors of the savory rainbow. Today menu items range from mac and cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil to some really good sour cream, beefy Stroganoff to mildly spicy pad Thai. Noodles & Company is still privately held and has expanded to more than 250 locations nationwide, nabbing a fair share of consumer awards and attention along the way.

What customers love about Noodles & Company: Sure, people can boil pasta at home, but good sauces and toppings take some time -- an investment that, for a hungry person who just got done with work/yoga/book club/chasing their kids around a park, seems like a lifetime of waiting. Noodles is easy on the purse, the portion sizes are generous and the menu staple beef Stroganoff just as good as what you can make at home -- with zero percent of the time and effort.

4. Larkburger It all started with a burger and a world-class restaurant in Vail, Colorado....so sayeth Larkburger. Co-founder and chef Thomas Salamunovich has been involved in a formidable roster of Colorado fine-dining facilities, including Larkspur, where he invented the Larkburger. This damned delicious burger was so incredibly sought-after that Salamunovich built a sleek, innovative fast-casual restaurant around it. Today Larkburger is a chain that proves to people that a truffle burger with a side of Parmesan truffle fries isn't too much truffle at all.

What customers love about Larkburger: They adore the truffle-scented burger and they lust after the truffle fries. The seared tuna burger is as healthy as it is scrumptious. Larkburger also offers edamame as a side, and gives kids whole apples with every kid's meal -- guilt-free dining at its finest.

3. Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill Alon Mor had a vision of bringing quality, Mediterranean-style food to the U.S. in a fast-casual environment -- and he made this happen with fast growth, and some of the best babaghanoush in Colorado. Piping hot pitas are made from scratch and baked on site throughout the day in full view of customers; cool salads and sauces are made from fresh, whole vegetables and prepared each morning; there are no transfat oils in sight. Started in 2007, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill currently has locations throughout the Denver metro area, as well as Colorado Springs, Boulder and Fort Collins areas, and is expanding quickly across the state -- and outside of it -- with more franchise stores in the works.

What customers love about Garbanzo: Lean, well-prepared proteins and a surfeit of seasoned, grilled vegetables -- some on skewers -- make customers feel like they are getting some serious quality grub for reasonable prices, with no muss, fuss, dirty dishes in their own sink. Garbanzo's fresh mint lemonade would take forever to make at home, and only a second to grab here. And watching the oven drop fresh pitas into a waiting basket is at least five minutes' worth of entertainment at no additional charge.

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Jenn Wohletz
Contact: Jenn Wohletz