Chipotle has had a bad couple of years. Health and sourcing issues have caused the company to stumble through controversy after controversy. Sales are way down, with people feeling generally less trusting of the Tex-Mex fast casual joint. After a year with plenty of fires to put out (including the middling queso reviews), CEO Steve Ellis shared plans to step down earlier this week.
This raises an interesting question: What fast casual joints are poised to go nationwide and win the public’s love the way Chipotle once did? Usual suspects are easy to find, but Chipotle was a breakout star. So that’s what we looked for: Restaurants on the cusp.
We picked our favorite fast casual micro-chains from various regions in hopes that one day soon they’ll be slinging their delicious food from sea to shining sea.
Tocabe is the first Native American chain restaurant in America. They currently operate two locations in the Denver area and are helping lead the charge to reintroduce the foods of North America to the world. The menu focuses on the ever-expanding resurgence of Indigenous American cuisine with a focus on native foods (think motley corns, beans, gourds) and underutilized proteins like bison and rabbit.
Their “Indian Tacos” and “Posu Bowls” have the same “pick your meats, pick your toppings” vibe that Chipotle pushed into the mainstream. Plus the food is spectacular.
Best Dish: Bison Ribs.
Down San Diego way, Project Pie is allowing you to build your own pizza at three locations. They take the Chipotle assembly line model and simply apply it to pizza. Once you build your pizza, it only takes two minutes to fire. That’s a two-minute wait for a pizza that you created (if it’s not good, it’s on you!). This one really feels like it’ll be everywhere very soon.
Best Dish: Whatever you build! It’s pizza, after all.
La Sirena Grill
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Come Down to La Sirena Grill South Laguna Beach, CA! Grab yourself a Hopfen Bier Beer Battered Baja Taco and a Refreshing Grapefruit Sculpin From Ballast Point! #lasirena #grill #socal #lagunabeach #laguna #ballastpoint #sculpin #craftbeer #beer #beach #ca #cali #baja #taco #eco #mexican #grapefruit #food
The OC (don’t call it that) has fish tacos and craft beer on lock. La Sirena Grill currently slings amazing Cali-Mex with a deep Baja feel out of three Laguna Beach locations. They pair the daily catch in various forms with a rotating selection of great beers. Food is sustainably sourced (a la Chipotle) and their chips, salsa, and guac are low-key famous.
La Sirena also hits the ecological mark with a “MexECO” philosophy which puts a heavy emphasis on upcycling in their design and bolstering sustainable foodways. Plus, there’s a self-service salsa bar and a real bar, with efficient bartenders shaking made-to-order margaritas. That’s a win-win.
Best dish: Blackened Daily Fish Tacos.
Chef Ludo Lefebvre has always bucked the system and trends that dominated the restaurant industry. When others were spending millions opening brick and mortars, he juked left and open a fried chicken food truck. That truck led to LA’s two Ludo Bird locations, where impossibly fluffy biscuits and fried chicken sandwiches have won the hearts of endless Angelinos.
Chef Lefebvre’s ethos is about making food for everyone to eat at a price that’s realistic. Ludo Bird feels like the perfect application of that ethos. Right now, it’s high-class fast food, but a little step to the left or right of center and this could be the next big thing in both fried chicken and fast casual.
Best dish: Honey lavender biscuit.
Our love for classic Tex-Mex spots in the Pacific Northwest runs deep. One of the greats is Muchas Gracias in Vancouver, WA. These sorts of holes-in-the-wall were the first fast casual joints, before anyone even knew what that term meant. The place is a pure Mexican-American cuisine that’s fast, filling, and delicious.
Muchas Gracias has 18 locations across Oregon and Washington in various strip malls — feeding families, workers, and stoners for a great price. Their daily special for $5.99 is served fast and usually comes with the fatty refried beans and dirty rice of your dreams. They might need a design and logo overhaul to get Chipotle-level big, but that seems easily within reach.
Best dish: Carne Asada Fries.
El Burrito Loco
Almost inexplicably, Chicago has a wonderful tradition of great taquerias all over the city. While most of them are one-off establishments, some are starting to chain out and pop up in strip malls across the city. El Burrito Loco has nine locations with lush yet simple tacos, tortas, sopes, tamales, tostadas, gorditas all served with plenty of dirty rice and beans.
Best dish: Chorizo & Egg Torta.
There are few things better in this world than a lightly poached chicken served with rice cooked in the poaching water. Chicken Rice is a staple of eastern Asian cuisine and is finally catching on in America. Side Chick serves a great and deceptively simple dish of delicate chicken alongside fatty rice with some umami and spicy sauces for dippin’. That’s it and it’s all you’ll ever want.
Right now, there’s just one location in a mall in southern California, but it’s got the stamp of approval from LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold and it’s sure to blow up into a nationwide phenomenon soon.
Best dish: Chicken Rice all day.
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A Hawai’ian, Korean, New American fusion joint is setting fire to Seattle’s fast casual scene. Marination started as a food truck that just wouldn’t quit. Now it’s got five locations to go along with their truck. The Hawai’ian style sweet pork goes shocking well with their kimchi in taco or sandwich form. The kicker, they serve bespoke shaved ice for dessert — which, come on, who doesn’t want that on every corner of America?
Best dish: ALOHA TOTS. That’s tater tots with Kalua pork, kimchi sauce, mayo, scallions, and a fried egg.
Clover Food Lab
Clover Food Labs is one of the most innovative, sustainable, and, well, interesting fast casual joints around. Right now, they’re based in Boston and Cambridge with 13 locations. The ethos of Clover Food Lab is to think about where your food is coming from and what you’re putting in your body. The menu is sustainable, local, and largely plant-based. So far Clover has been a roaring success in Mass. It could very well be the plant-focused fast casual that finally breaks through to nationwide stardom.
Best dish: Impossible burger Meatball Sub.
This Los Angeles based Asian-Mexican fusion spot blew up when the team married Vietnam and Mexico in their now iconic Phoritto. It was the perfect intersection of deliciousness and Instagram-ability. Besides the insta-famous phoritto, Komodo also offers up inspired tacos, kimchi nachos, and spicy dumplings in a fast and inexpensive fashion.
If any place was going to use social media stardom to make a nation wide push, it’d be Komodo.
Best dish: The Phoritto, obvs.