The Best of Local Fast-Casual Dining
We pick our favorite dishes from local eateries. Plus: Tips for healthier ordering.
The Taste Test
Who does the standards better, our local fast-casual chains or the out-of-towners? We tasted them side by side to find out.
Contenders: Sweetgreen, founded by three Georgetown University students, versus Chopt Creative Salad Company, incorporated in 1998 and headquartered in New York City. Sweetgreen has boomed into a chain with about 70 shops in seven states and Washington, D.C. Chopt has more than 40 outlets on the East Coast.
Comments: Sweetgreen’s salad, awakened with a crucial squeeze of lime juice, tasted far fresher and brighter than Chopt’s rendition. Other jazzy plusses in Sweetgreen’s salad: cheesy Parmesan crisps, shards of fresh Parmesan and grape tomatoes
Contenders: BGR the Burger Joint (transitioning into BGR—Burgers Grilled Right), founded in 2008 in Bethesda by Mark Bucher (Medium Rare, Community) versus Bobby’s Burger Palace, established by celebrity chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay. In 2015, BGR was sold to Chanticleer Holdings Inc., a public company based in Charlotte, North Carolina; there are now 21 domestic locations, including four in Montgomery County. Flay has 17 burger palaces across the country, including four in Maryland.
Comments: BGR’s burger had better ingredients—quality beef, redder, riper tomatoes and crunchier red onions—but the meat was cooked way past its requested medium rare, and the cheese wasn’t melted. Bobby’s burger turned up true to medium rare, sporting a gooey blanket of melted cheese. But the tomatoes were wan, the onions a bit limp, and when eaten by itself, the meat tasted more salty than beefy.
Burritos (chicken and steak)
Contenders: California Tortilla, founded in 1995 in Bethesda by Pam Felix and Alan Cohen, versus Chipotle, the mother of Mexican fast-casual, which started in 1993 in Denver. Cohen retired in 2014, but Felix is still involved with California Tortilla, which now has 48 locations, including seven in Montgomery County. Chipotle, with 2,291 restaurants, reported $1.07 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2017.
Comments: We like the colorful décor, vibe and local roots of California Tortilla, but Chipotle has burritos down pat, with better quality and proportions of ingredients, and just-right seasoning. In particular, Chipotle had a leg up in the rice department, and its steak was markedly more tender. Unlike California Tortilla, however, its stores do not have a hot sauce Wall of Flame.
Contenders: Cava, the successful spinoff of MoCo buddies Ted Xenohristos, Ike Grigoropoulos and Dimitri Moshovitis, versus Roti, founded in 2007 in Chicago. The three local Greeks, who started with full-service restaurants, opened their first Cava in 2011 in Bethesda, and have been expanding rapidly with the help of a multimillion dollar investment from a venture capital firm. Roti has nearly 30 restaurants across the country, including one in Montgomery County.
Comments: Cava’s crusty orbs were full of whole chickpeas and had a greater depth of flavor and texture than Roti’s. Ditto for Cava’s hummus and tzatziki, both thicker and more complex than Roti’s renditions.