Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: Naf Naf Grill
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
It seems like lunch places in the Loop come and go all the time. One minute, you're getting lunch at one of your favorite quick-service restaurants, and the next day, it's gone, with another one inevitably springing up to take its place. And right now, the new wave of lunch joints almost all serve Mediterranean food. It's sort of insane; take a walk around and see what I mean. There's almost one Mediterranean restaurant on every other block, or at least it feels that way. Who knew people liked fried balls so much? Falafel balls—I meant falafel balls. That's what I meant.
Naf Naf Grill is a recent transplant from Naperville, and it's found a home by Washington and Wacker, just down the street from the Lyric Opera. I'd heard about Naf Naf Grill a long time ago from my Napervillian friends, who always claimed it was the best Mediterranean food they'd ever had, but I generally don't trust the opinion from people from Naperville, mostly because I'm a dick. So, as usual, I had to check it out, by stuffing balls in my mouth.
Like some of the newer quick-service Mediterranean joints I've been to, the ordering process is similar to that of Chipotle; pick a style that you like (plate or sandwich); choose your main protein or vegetable; and then choose your toppings. The falafel pita ($5.79) is one of the better ways to judge a Mediterranean restaurant, in my opinion, since it's a staple item. Naf Naf's version is well seasoned with spices to balance out the nutty chickpeas, but unfortunately, the balls are soft and mushy, with hardly any crunch. Since I prefer mine with at least some crunch, it's a little disappointing. That's hot sauce in the picture, not the falafel ball, in case you're wondering—more on the sauce later.
The chicken shawarma ($6.79) comes off one of those huge spits in the back (you can see them behind the counter), and is a better option. The thinly sliced chicken is very tender and well seasoned. It's not charred in any way, but with all the flavors and natural crunch from the vegetable toppings, you won't really miss it all that much.
One of the things that caught my attention was the chicken schnitzel pita bowl ($7.79). I was surprised to even see the word schnitzel on the menu. The seasoning on the fried chicken cutlet is spot on, but the chicken is so dry and stringy, the salad toppings can't even save this one.
It's not often you get to eat tenderloin for lunch, but Naf Naf has a beef tenderloin kebab bowl ($8.99) on the menu. The beef is super tender, just like you'd expect, but it's almost tender to the point of being mushy. It's a curious creature; the beef almost tastes as if it's been boiled; there are no grill or griddle marks on it, which would have been much better.
The hummus ($2.99) is a good standard version of the creamier variety (as opposed to the grainier versions you see sometimes). It comes with a house-made pita, which you can see them baking a steady supply of in the back, which is pretty badass. House-made pitas are always a good touch, and there's nothing like freshly baked bread.
The hot sauce at Naf Naf Grill is unique and spicy, it's got a grassy green flavor from the herbs and a real kick.
Sorry, Naperville, I Dream of Falafel still wins right now, with their excellent falafel balls and meat offerings, but you've definitely got a contender with the chicken shawarma. What do you guys think? Any fans out there think I'm totally off with this one?
Naf Naf Grill
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.