In the past few months I have continued my quest to try every Mediterranean restaurant that comes my way — whether or not it’s for the sake of the Pasadena Weekly. I cannot and will not stop enjoying perfectly creamy hummus, warm pita (if I’m lucky) and all the falafel there is to consume.
Recently, I decided to go with a quick service spot Cava, and a more authentic alternative, U Pick Cafe, the two just a mile apart from each other on opposite ends of Lake Avenue.
Cava is a chain with only a few locations in Southern California. Think of it this way: What Chipotle is to Mexican food, Cava is to Mediterranean — a quick service, make your own, with unlimited toppings (albeit for an upcharge) kind of place, only more hip and flavorful.
Cava is bright and earthy. Immediately one can also see there is a whole lot more variety than the average Meditaerranean restaurant, which is the reason I enjoyed it.
The first step was to start with a base of a salad, grain bowl (saffron basmati rice, brown basmati rice, or black lentils), greens and grains mixture, a large pita, mini pita, or mini pita and soup. I went with the saffron basmati rice without hesitation. Next, I chose sides and spreads which can range from hummus and tzatziki to jalapeño infused feta and eggplant and red pepper dip. I did both the hummus and tzatziki, although I could have added a third.
Then came the protein, where Cava offers falafel, grilled chicken, spicy lamb meatballs, grilled meatballs, braised beef, braised lamb and roasted vegetables. Of course, I went with the chicken. The next step was to add any unlimited toppings of which there is plenty to choose from — tomato and onion salad, cauliflower quinoa tabbouleh, pita crisps and crumbled feta, to name a few. All I opted for was lettuce since the last step was to throw over a dressing which consisted of sriracha Greek yogurt, Greek vinaigrette, lemon herb tahini, yogurt dill, green harissa, or spicy like tahini. The hummus and tzatziki in my bowl was plenty for me, so I moved down the line and got ready to pay at the register with my side of pita that came with the meal.
My bowl without any extras totaled $10.27 before tax, which seemed like an arbitrary number, and more than I expected. Granted, the food is higher quality, cleaner, and genuinely tasted great. The chicken to rice ratio was not so great. I could probably have fit the protein portion in the palm of my hand, which might have been OK if I didn’t have half a bowl of rice leftovers with only hummus to accompany it. I wasn’t sure if it was even worth taking home. More chicken or less rice would easily solve the confusing ratio. Despite this, the concept is great, the amount of freedom to choose is refreshing, and quality ingredients for the fast service setup it has going is great.
A few days after trying Cava, I made my way to a local authentic Mediterranean restaurant, U Pick Cafe. I went alone midweek and it was pretty empty except for one person waiting for his to-go order. I quickly noticed this was the trend — all of the six to eight patrons who entered that night while I was there all took their orders to go, or were there to pick up food delivery app orders.
While U Pick is also fast casual dining, it was easy to see protein choices are made to order, and because I ate there, my food was brought out by one of the two gentlemen working. I went for something similar to compare to Cava, although I don’t know that you can do that.
A grilled chicken kabob plate with rice and hummus as my sides was $9.99. This can also be ordered as a wrap, and other meat options include chicken lule, beef and beef lule, chicken or beef sultani, veggie, falafel, and combinations of both chicken and beef. There are plenty of sides or add ons to choose from, but two are served with the entree, and additional sides can be ordered for a small upcharge.
There was a soda fountain but I opted for water and waited for a good 20 minutes before I saw any sign of my food making its way to me. I didn’t mind the wait and knew it meant my chicken would be fresh. No surprise, I was right and it was delicious.
The hummus is some of the best I’ve ever had, the serving of bread was generous, and the chicken to rice and hummus ratio was perfect. I ate the plate in its entirety, foolishly thinking earlier I could take some home. My singular worry is that on a slow day it took some time for my food to be ready, so I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like on a busy day.
Nonetheless, while I enjoyed Cava and understand the demand for restaurants like it, the importance of authenticity like U Pick Cafe makes me partial to it.
Still, they serve different audiences and occasions, so depending on your mood, both are certainly worth a visit.