[Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

Judging by the long line of lunchers who queued up for the opening of the Mezza Mediterranean Grill last week in the food court of the Merchandise Mart, I was not alone in my eagerness for the latest branch of this Chicagoland chain to debut.

For as long as I've worked in the vicinity, the Merch Mart food court has always seemed like a kind of Island of Misfit Toys; it comprises an odd amalgam of off-brand dining options, such as Habanero Baja Grill, a Chipotle-esque burrito stand; an Arby's; a direct-your-own-chopped-salad kiosk with the painfully generic name Foodstuffs; and, until the Mezza took its place, a pathetic excuse for a Mediterranean joint whose name escapes me—probably because my subconscious is blocking out the trauma it caused, what with its high prices, awful food, and smug counter staff who knew they were getting the best of you.

But maybe the Mart food court has turned the corner. I have enjoyed many a good workday lunch at the Mezza in the Shops at North Bridge, casually known as the Nordstrom's mall. The pitas are always fresh and chewy; the falafel balls are warm, crispy and well seasoned; and the toppings are flavorful and generously doled out. Hence, the eagerness.

The falafel sandwich ($5.99) didn't disappoint. The pita came slathered in nutty tahini, stuffed with three sizable falafel balls, and covered with all sorts of crunchy vegetal goodies. (Side note: be sure to request the toppings you want; in Mezza parlance, getting a falafel "with everything" means a pretty basic set of ingredients.) For a chain, Mezza gets a lot of the details right: its hot sauce is actually hot and tangy, its black olives are nice and pungent, and the feta is creamy and rich. Mezza's falafel isn't mind-blowing by any means, but it is very tasty, fresh, and consistently good. In the midst of more questionable foodstuffs, those are extremely welcome qualities.

Mezza Mediterranean Grill

222 Merchandise Mart Plaza (2nd floor food court), Chicago, IL 60654 (map)


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