Event - Tasting Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill

As the nation shifts towards a healthier approach to their diets (at least, I can hope that is the case based on anecdotal observations), it seems that different types of cuisine are coming to the forefront as "healthier" than others. I have been witnessing a bigger buzz about Mediterranean food lately and seeing as I have always been a fan of those dishes, I am all for this trend. A cuisine emphasizing fresh produce, olive oil, and grilled/steamed proteins, it draws from countries near the Mediterranean Sea and the variations there. Though the Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill fast casual restaurant chain started off in Colorado in 2008, it has made some rapid expansion and found itself here in southern California with two recently opened locations (one in Irvine, the other in Aliso Viejo). The best way to describe the concept (and the way that owner Bill Gunstream described it when we met) is by designating it the Mediterranean version of Chipotle. There is no current industry term to put to this version of a fast casual restaurant so the pioneers get their namesake as the example.

"While I can't bring the Mediterranean Sea here, I can bring you the spices, food, and freshness that remind me of my home." - Founder Alon Mor
The first thing I notice about Garbanzo aside from the bright orange and green logo on the outside of the restaurant is that the branding is strong and provokes thoughts of healthiness. Orange walls, artwork of anthropomorphized fruits and vegetables, and thick columns filled with dried garbanzo beans easily invite people into a restaurant that pushes the idea of quality healthful products with exceptional service. I visited the Aliso Viejo location which seemed a lot larger inside than I had imagined and can be daunting at first. There is a wide dining area in the center and a walled off aisle to the side where guests go to start the ordering process. You get the option of choosing set entrees composed of ingredients the restaurant has built or you can build your own which tends to be the more preferred choice. Building your own entree comes in the form of making a plate, stuffed pita, or laffa wrap. Each of these options are under $10 alone but can be made into combinations and accompanied by add-ons. The most popular of the three would be the plate (which is what I ordered) because guests can put a little bit of everything in it.

Bill described to me how the restaurant does not focus on a single country from the Mediterranean when it determines its recipes. It aims for an overview of the entire region so some recipes may seem spot-on for certain cultures while wildly different for another. I found that these polar extremes were fascinating though because it really shows how varying one particular dish can be from person to person based on their cultural upbringing. The usual suspects were all there from hummus to tahini to shwarma to falafel but each had a blend of influences associated with them. When going up to order, every guest gets the treat of a falafel sample (yum!) from the friendly staff and the opportunity to sample other ingredients as well before committing. It only makes sense - the cuisine might be new to people! As for that Falafel, I really enjoyed the crunch on it and the seasoning. It's a recipe passed on from the founder's family that would be fun to get my hands on, I'd think. Get a sample yourself when you drop in.

In terms of drinks, there are a variety of typical soft drinks and teas at the dispensers but if you are looking for the specialty stuff, there are several Garbanzo-specific drinks available. I had a taste of their Hibiscus Mango Iced Tea Fusion - (water, hibiscus, rose hips, Stevia, strawberry flavor, tangerine flavor, peach flavor, mango syrup, pure cane sugar, water, mango flavoring, concentrated lemon juice) and Pomegranate Lemonade. The iced tea was definitely my type of drink - a subtly sweet tea with enough fruit flavor to be refreshing but not overwhelming. I found the lemonade too tart and sugary for me but those who like thick lemonades might enjoy this one. If not this, you also have the option of shooting for their regular or mint versions. Aside from the drinks are the various add-ons and complimentary sauces. I went for their Dolmas which happen to be vegetarian and imported; a little mushy and surprisingly without meat, I can see these as a good introduction to the idea of stuffed grape leaves. The housemade sauces are a good way for guests to better customize their entrees based on their own preferences. I sampled their Tahini which was pleasantly and lightly flavored and colored by parsley, Mediterranean Garlic Sauce which is similar to the familiar Ranch dressing, Cilantro Sauce which gave some bright highlights to whatever I was eating, Red Chili Sauce which had a mellow heat to it, and Tzatziki which is an iconic Mediterran yogurt-based sauce and apparently goes well mixed with the red chili sauce.

Garbanzo has several meats to choose from and even combinations of the meats which included a term I hadn't seen anywhere else before: "falarma." It will be phased out soon but is the combination of the meats with their falafel - what a fun idea. I went for the Steak Shwarma Plate but you also have the options of chicken shwarma, chicken falarma, steak falarma, mushrooms, and falafel. Hummus is the main feature in the center of this plate, and the accompaniments seemed almost endless after then. Of course I loaded up on almost everything to get a sense of what their ingredients were like. I also tried out a mixed Kabob Platter which comes with grilled marinated vegetables and meats paired with seasoned rice, hummus, and a salad. The meats were actually different between the plate and platter to my surprise, and I found the steak kabob more tender and juicier than the plate's steak. Perhaps it has to do with the preparation as the kabobs are prepared as close to the time as ordered as possible (chicken takes 10 minutes on the grill while steak takes 6 minutes). Nevertheless, a great combination. The marinated vegetables on the kabobs were bordering on a caramelized state so were a good addition to the meal. I really enjoyed the freshness of the ingredients on all accounts and a strong liking for the hummus and how it mixed well with everything. It only makes sense though that a placed called Garbanzo would make good hummus - that's what hummus is made of!

In terms of carbs, I opted for a wheat pita instead of regular with my plate and like that there is that option of whole wheat pitas or wraps as wanted. In fact, Garbanzo is quite the vegetarian-friendly restaurant, often getting customers in particularly because they've heard about the vegetarian options. Take a look at the nutritional facts here to see the options and spot the combinations you can make. They have also started making a gluten-free pita which is cooked in its own foil sleeve so that it can be handled without being exposed to the other pitas. This dough is prepped in an off-site facility that is completely gluten-free as well to be safe for consumption, and the pita chips are all made from the same gluten-free dough. I really liked seeing the pitas being made fresh from the dough they had and getting it warm and ready for the meal.

"I always tell people that I gave up my pancakes, syrup, and butter for vegetables and hummus." - Owner Bill Gunstream on his shift from companies
Overall, the concept has been received well by the community so I'm excited to see how many more crop up in Orange County. We even spotted a person who Bill pointed out as having visited at least three out of the past four days. The commitment to customer service was also apparent from the staff behind the counter to the ones on the floor engaging the customers, including Bill himself who knew some of the guests by first name. Even when I asked for a headshot after our conversation, he even said, "This is not about me. It's about Garbanzo."

As a subsidiary of a larger company, Garbanzo has its brand identity in place from all of the resources at its fingertips and I foresee that the franchise will go far. My thanks go out to Bill for his time with me during the tasting and the staff for being so friendly. Also, if you keep your eyes open, you'll see the cheeky and whimsical comments the restaurant tries to sneak into their branding. I especially liked my take-out bag at the end of the tasting. It read: "LIVE BAIT: This is a decoy bag. We've created this for your protection. If a friend or co-worker knew that delicious Garbanzo food was inside this bag, it would be a matter of time before they'd be asking for a sample or two. Soon a crowd would gather, and inevitably a double dipping incident would lead to a scuffle. This bag allows you to get what you paid for: the freshest Mediterranean and a little peace." You can find the Aliso Viejo location at 26541 Aliso Creek Rd. Aliso Viejo, CA 92656 and the Irvine one at 6278 Irvine Blvd. Irvine, CA 92620.

Photography by Minerva Thai. More photos available on Facebook here.

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