Sandwiches. Pizza. Salad bars. Burritos.
These staples have become blank canvases, open to endless variations, tailored to individual tastes. Many fast casual restaurants have capitalized on the “have it your way” trend by offering a list of ingredients that can be mixed and matched at will.
Naf Naf Grill, located in the new Hub Building at 555 State St., is the latest chain to present a variation on the choose-your-own-adventure theme, this time with an array of Mediterranean food.
As you enter, the signature “camel crossing” signs on the walls lead you to an orderly line where you can peruse the small menu. Fitting in well with the local vibe, Naf Naf Grill emphasizes fresh ingredients prepared in an open kitchen.
Diners can even watch fluffy round pitas come out of the oven through a window to the bakery.
Naf Naf Grill lets one choose a protein (beef, chicken or falafel, fried chickpea patties) and a meal base (pita, saffron-colored basmati rice, lettuce salad or hummus). Diners move through a cafeteria-style line choosing toppings and sauces to give the dish crunch and spice.
Focused on the falafel, I ordered a Veggie Feast ($8.99), anchored by a layer of both hummus and baba ghanoush (a smooth, garlicky eggplant spread) and topped with four crispy balls of falafel, which are made fresh every 15 minutes, according to my helpful server.
From there I was free to customize. I wanted the full experience: sliced onions sprinkled with cumin; chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro and white cabbage; shaved purple cabbage seasoned with lemon; and sliced pickles. All of these were heaped on in generous portions.
Tahini sauce, a light dressing made of yogurt and nutty sesame paste, topped the entire lunch bowl. I requested each of the other sauces on the side so I could taste different combinations. The dish came with one of the warm pitas I saw baked minutes earlier. If I’d had a larger appetite, I could have added lentil soup or Naf fries to my tray.
The result of my mixing and matching was a bit of a jumble, but much of it was delicious. The falafel were warm, perfectly crispy on the outside and surprisingly light on the inside.
The four golf ball sized golden nuggets were especially good paired with the subtle, creamy hummus and fresh matchsticks of cucumber. But the chickpea puree was hard to find under my thick layer of veggie slaws, and its eggplant counterpart had an overwhelming smokey flavor that drowned other ingredients.
Sauces could completely change the character of the dish. Garlic sauce was strong and salty. S’khug, a homemade mixture of red peppers, jalapenos garlic and cumin, tasted like traditional Mexican salsa.
And the fire sauce was self explanatory — it's only for those with a fondness for sriracha-like heat. Finally, an olive oil dressing is offered for diners looking for simplicity, or something decadent to dip their pitas in.
The pita itself was a much spongier version of traditional Middle Eastern bread than I had eaten before. Like downgrading from a French baguette to Wonder bread, it made me long for something with more character.
But with entrees that range from $6-$9, Naf Naf Grill’s quick, fresh and affordable menu feels like a good addition to the eateries near campus. The lovely falafel is reason enough to go back until I find just the right combination of ingredients to make my perfect lunch.