Explore healthy Mediterranean food at Cava in El Segundo – Daily Breeze

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Cava isn’t the only Middle Eastern restaurant here in Southern California to offer Chipotle-style, cafeteria line dining. For instance, Tel Aviv Grill in the SF Valley does it, and very well.
But like Chipotle, Cava isn’t simply 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 Cava-branded dips and spreads sold in 250 Whole Foods.
It all began 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 pretty darn 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 return?) of the cafeteria-line fast-casual dining experience — which for too long had fallen into decline, with mall food joints like Panda Express defining the style.
These days, some of the best chefs in America serve their chow from lines. I was in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago, and ate at the sainted Chef Jose Andres’ line-style salad restaurant — Beefsteak — right on the George Washington University campus. Young scholars, happy to follow the Andres notion of plant-based dining, stretched out the door, and down the street. That’s “eatin’ good in the neighborhood” — as the Applebee’s tagline goes.
Cava, by contrast, is in neighborhoods all across America, often defined by their heavy lunch crowds drawn from surrounding Dilbert-style cubicle farms, or college crowds; there are branches at USC and UCLA. And in El Segundo, Cava is right on Rosecrans and Sepulveda, in the midst of a duo of high-traffic shopping malls, with lots of options — Cava standing out as one of the fastest, easiest, least expensive and, of course, healthiest. It hits all the sweet spots of how we like to eat these days.
To get back to the process: You choose from any of the many bowls — “Build It” as it says on the menu. The options for most are greens and grains — either separately, or mixed together, for those who can’t make up their minds. Greens and grains, they do a body good.
The grains lean toward saffron basmati rice, brown basmati rice and black lentils. Very tasty. And yes, there’s a quinoa option as well, served as tabbouleh made with cauliflower and quinoa, which I do believe appears on healthy menus by law. At least this year. The jury is still out on whether quinoa is here to stay, or is the flavor of the moment. Like cauliflower rice, I’m not sure it has legs.
And, yes, the greens do include arugula, as demanded by the same law. I expect arugula to be around forever. I like arugula. (Though I like radicchio even more. But that’s me; I go with the crunch.)
Anyway, once you’ve settled on your bowl, or your pita, if you want a wrap, there are dips and spreads like tzatziki, eggplant and red pepper, hummus, roasted red pepper hummus, feta and spicy harissa. By all means, get the hummus — it holds the whole bowl together. The proteins run to chicken, falafel, grilled meatballs, braised lamb, seasonal roasted veggie and spicy lamb meatballs.
There are toppings, which allow you to create a wholly crazed concoction, topped with cabbage slaw, tomato & onion, pickled onions, pickled banana peppers, kalamata olives, and of course pita chips.
It’s at this point that your well-designed Cava bowl can turn into an edible Tower of Babel, reaching architectural limits. And, of course the whole thing has to be topped off with a dressing — including yogurt dill, lemon herb tahini, green harissa, Sriracha, Greek yogurt and more.
The end result makes for a meal of, as the menu tells us, “Food that fills you…and fulfills you too.”
For those with dietary peccadilloes, there are ingredients that are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan and soy-free. In a way, that defines our culinary age — an age of worry about what we’re eating. We’re further told, “We use no peanuts, tree nuts, or any other kind of nuts. We also use no eggs. Some of our menu items contain sesame.” We do live in an age of culinary anxiety. For some. For others, this is reasonably fast food, that’s not fast food. It’s good food made fast. There are blessings to be had here.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected].
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