Fast-Casual Fever

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It is undeniable that fast-casual restaurants have gained massive popularity in recent years. Eateries like Chipotle, Jimmy Johns, or Panera are becoming the lunchtime preference for people of all types. If my own preferences are anything like that of the general public, I assume this is because fast-causal restaurants are the happy medium we all look for. The words “fast-food” leave a greasy taste in one’s mind – not to mention one’s mouth – but sit down restaurants are reserved for occasions, not a quick lunch in the middle of a work day. On the other hand, the ability to walk along a display of high-quality ingredients, customize my meal exactly the way I like it, and still not have to worry about leaving a tip is my idea of the perfect lunch break.

I am constantly surprised by the number of restaurants that have claimed a spot in this niche as well as the variety of culinary styles that can be adapted to fit the model. In the not-so-distant past, dishes from all corners of the world have had their own idiosyncratic rituals that go along with the food itself. For instance, if you wanted a slice of pizza, you might have to order ahead or wait at the restaurant for the pizza to bake; otherwise, you must choose from a limited selection of slices that have been sitting in the warming oven for an undisclosed amount of time. Or, let’s say you wanted a salad. Many restaurants offer salads with another meal, or sometimes they’ve tacked on a menu of standalone salads somewhat haphazardly. But in today’s futuristic age of gastronomic ingenuity, I can enjoy pizza and salad, as well as burritos, orange chicken, pho, bagels, pasta, and every kind of sandwich available under the sun in almost exactly the same fashion. By now, before even walking into the new restaurant on the block, I know that I am going to walk through an assembly line, pick a “base” of some sort, and add toppings as I move towards the register.

My fiancé and I are both casual foodies. We are outgoing in our food preferences and keep tabs on the new restaurants in our neighborhood. Recently, a new fast-casual restaurant popped up a few miles away. I thought I had seen just about every variant of the restaurant model described above until I walked through the front door of Tocabe: an American Indian Eatery. Upon entering, I knew what I was supposed to do; there were signs hanging over the counter indicating the bases, toppings, and extras as I moved from right to left. Removing the experiential barriers allowed me to focus on enjoying this new food rather than being concerned about “doing it wrong.” Their signature dish was a bison stuffed fry-bread, although you could substitute either the bread or the meat with a few alternative (albeit less-exotic) options like corn-chips or chicken. The bison was an exciting new ingredient, but the most intriguing new flavor for me was a topping of hominy with dried cranberries. Not being an expert in American Indian culture or cuisine, I can’t say how authentic the flavor profile was, but I can certainly say that it was delicious and unlike anything I’d ever had! Tocabe currently has just a few locations, but I could tell by the trendy décor and near-exact match to my expectations of the ordering process that the owners will probably try to franchise their idea. I sincerely hope – for their sake and for my fellow foodies across the country – that they succeed!

Andrew Koneman