If you haven’t heard, there’s a new fast casual restaurant chain in town. Oh wait, you might not have heard because two of their three locations are in Maple Grove and Eden Prairie. The third is downtown and a 4th is due to open this summer in the Mall of America’s new “Culinary on North” area. Woodbury, City Center, and Stadium Village are additional Twin Cities locations to follow in 2016. And why would I be writing about some new fast casual restaurant on TC Jewfolk you ask? Well, because it’s perhaps the most Jewish mass market restaurant concept we’ve ever seen.
I’m talking Naf Naf Grill – a chain from Chicago that is expanding its reach into Wisconsin and Minnesota with their eyes on Chipotle-like world domination (minus the contamination of course). Before I start talking shawarma and hummus, I need to get something off my chest. Naf Naf Grill is owned by Israelis. Before it became a chain, it was a local Israeli restaurant in Naperville, Illinois. When the business grew, a decision was obviously made to cut out all references to Israel or Israeli. I get it – better for business in the Midwest if you’re “Middle Eastern.”
So the foods on the Naf Naf Grill menu are decidedly Israeli – hummus, shawarma, falafel, etc. but the average Eden Prairie customer probably has no idea, which, according to Naf Naf Grill’s regional manager, is actually exactly the point. Their mission is to unite people through food; they say that their recipes do come from throughout the Middle East. It’s still a bit amusing to witness people trying to order and being completely confused and/or intimidated by this crazy new exotic food! “I just figured out how to order a burrito and now baba-what???” But once they get it, they seem to love it and that’s exactly the recipe for success that the Naf Naf Grill people have in mind.
Onto the most important part – the food. First, it should be noted that Naf Naf Grill is not kosher. However, it is vegetarian friendly with the most typical of all Israeli foods – falafel – being one of the three main options. Naf Naf Grill has copied the Chipotle model in that customers go down the line and construct their meals accordingly. Besides the falafel, you can choose from chicken or steak shawarma. Kids will love the shawarma robots – automatic vertical slicers that have become the norm in Israeli shawarma shops. Bowls can be lined with hummus or babaganoush or both as I tend to do. There’s lettuce and rice and if you don’t order a pita sandwich, you get a fresh, baked in-house pita with your bowl. I almost forgot – new to the menu is couscous which can be subbed for the rice.
Other toppings include a salad mix, red cabbage, Israeli pickles, pungent sumac onions (go light), and 4 sauces: tahini, garlic mayo, s’khug and something called fire sauce.
The falafel and shawarma are great but for the full experience, kick up the flavor with the sauces as Naf Naf is Israeli food for the masses. Also, do yourself a favor and be sure to order what they call “Naf Fries,” which are like perfectly seasoned version of what would happen if potato chips and french fries had babies. We didn’t order it but we hear the lentil soup is also delicious. As I mentioned earlier, it can be quite entertaining watching the newbies order their first Israeli food. I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t seen guys order “steak and rice only please.” Or the guy when offered hummus in his bowl: “I’ll just have the lettuce.”
So that gets me wondering why Eden Prairie and Maple Grove and not St. Louis Park and Minnetonka? Truth be told every time I’ve been the EP location, there has been a healthy line and a packed house. I was expecting it to pick up after the Chipotle fiasco – with a Chipotle location a few doors down. But the reality is that many people just don’t care and many others don’t pay attention to the news. They need their burritos and they need them every single day. The Chipotle diehards are not going to check out the new “exotic” Middle Eastern place with the hard to pronounce foods.
Besides the “order at the counter while you build exactly what you want” fast-casual concept, Naf Naf Grill takes another page from the Chipotle playbook. Tomer Gal, the Naf Naf Grill’s Regional Manager for Minnesota shared with us that they emphasize a people-first culture and that their investment in their staff and promotion from within is a tremendous part of their success to date.
For the Jews of the Twin Cities, we know how to pronounce babaganoush. And we feel good about eating there. It’s also relatively healthy and pretty easy on the wallet so there’s that too. We’ll be curious to see how Naf Naf Grill does in the MOA and how many other locations pop up around town. We’re looking forward to being able to get our falafel fix all over town as the Twin Cities will be Naf Naf’s second-largest market outside of the Chicago area.
We’re also thinking about a couple possible additions to the Naf Naf Grill menu. Maybe some schnitzel or shakshuka? Yes, please.