Healthy competition for Loop lunches

May 21, 2010 (CHICAGO)

For years, the Haifa Cafe has been just about the only loop option for falafel and hummus. But there's a shawarma war underway, with each new place offering faster service, fresher ingredients and modern amenities. The people who are benefitting from this healthy competition just happen to work in the Loop.

Tucked way back inside a fast-food court on the Northern edge of The Loop, Olive Mediterranean Grill is attempting to make Middle Eastern food the new office worker lunch option - except a lot healthier.

"Everything is made with olive oil, lemon juice and a few different spices. As part of the Mediterranean, less is more, so that's what we bring to this. All 100 percent white meat chicken, very lean beef," said Faisal Ghani, owner of Olive Mediterranean Grill.

Beautiful pieces of chicken shawarma are sliced, while juicy hunks of beef and chicken kebabs are constantly turned over a grill. Mediterranean salads - overflowing with vegetables, olives and feta - are just as popular as the freshly-made falafel, made from ground chickpeas and spices. Ghani manages to keep most of the prices around five bucks.

"You don't need to rip the customers off to make money. It's a great concept, really brining people back to how they can live and eat healthy. And we've been able to do this with those prices. We're keeping a lot of authenticity with our food, it's all about our food. That is the key here," said Ghani.

On the Southern end of the Loop - directly across the street from the Willis Tower - is one of four local outposts of Roti Mediterranean Grill. It's clear the store is hoping to become to Middle Eastern food, what Chipotle was to Mexican.

"I think this sort of Mediterranean, this East and Mediterranean and Southern Mediterranean diet is healthful, it's fresh and really, really good tasting. It has a lot of interesting spices and textures and layers of taste," said Mats Lederhausen, owner of Roti.

Freshly-made pita is the key here - warm and pliable - followed by dips, such as baba gannoush and hummus. Both spreads appear on a a Venetian platter of chicken roti, along with a vibrant Jerusalem salad, and a small mound of couscous. Chicken kebabs are also grilled and juicy, while roti sandwiches are definitely two-fisted affairs. The falafel is pretty non-traditional - arriving softer inside, with bits of whole chickpea - but that's precisely the point.

"We're inspired by the Mediterranean food. And we have taken our interpretation of what we like about the Mediterranean food and we've also adapted it for the American market," Lederhausen said.

And the latest salvo in the baba gannoush wars: "I Dream of Falafel," which just opened its second location in the loop.

Olive Mediterranean Grill
201 N. Clark St.

Roti has four Chicago area locations: 301 W. Adams

10 S. Riverside Plaza

984 Willow Rd., Northbrook

1240 E. Route 45, Vernon Hills

also mentioned:

Haifa Cafe
115 S. Clinton

I Dream of Falafel
331 S. Franklin Street
Chicago, IL 60606

112 W Monroe
Chicago, IL 60603

Oasis Café
21 N. Wabash (at back of Jewelry store)

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