For the modern American drunkard, a good gyros/falafel/kebab joint is manna from heaven. Open hours later than the final call for alcohol, these dens of exotically foreign aroma glow like celestial offerings from some benevolent god, set down mercifully somewhere between the bar and home. Serving monolithic citadels of steamy meats goobered up with vast rivers of tahini, tzatziki, hummus, and plenty of other seasonings redolent of garlic and armpit, they're pitch-perfect, what-you-need, when-you-need-it.
Middle Eastern food, reduced to its basics of meats chiseled from cone squished into sandwich, is an earthy, alluring, and at its best even slightly perilous-feeling offering by guys with thick mustaches and heavy accents and a swordsman's way with the gyros knife. It's a beautiful thing.
But something has come along to bump these beloved, dusty, fluorescent-lit, indie-recipe corner stores into the middle of last week, and I'm not sure I know how to feel about it.
Naf Naf Grill is a private-equity firm-invested, mergers-and-acquisitions, Chicago-based chain specializing in "Americanized" Middle Eastern fare in an "American" setting. The chain is commonly referred to as the "Chipotle of Middle Eastern" food. And since the model has worked for that goliath, all new fast-casual restaurants, especially of the ethnic persuasion, seemingly want to be the "Chipotle" of (fill-in-the-blank.) The Chipotle of Korean, the Chipotle of Indian, the Chipotle of Filipino.
We as American diners want to see things up front. We want to see what you are putting on our sandwich. No mystery meat, please, no ambiguous sauces, no slipping any damn onions in there if I don't want them! And especially nothing I can't pronounce. Everything must be squeaky clean and antiseptic and under glass and beneath bright lights and passed along under the safety of plastic glove with a side of fries. And hold the funny accent, if at all possible.
Speaking of mystery meat, Naf Naf doesn't serve lamb. Their gyros are made from chicken or steak. Why does Naf Naf not serve lamb, the flesh from whence all respectable shawarma must naturally be born? Is it because Americans are not altogether comfortable with the gaminess of lamb, the squishy, fluffy cuteness of lamb, the funky, from some-other-country exotica of it? They're babies! No, no, give us our chicken, give us our cows. Those we can handle and snarf happily and guiltlessly.
The experience of eating at Naf Naf is indeed precisely like eating at a Chipotle, and it's probably no accident that its first Minneapolis outpost enjoys coveted real estate directly next door to one in the US Bank Building, of all places. And there, they'll enjoy a not trivial amount of customer runoff, like the not quite as pretty friend to the homecoming queen.
Service staff at Naf Naf is almost preternaturally cheerful, apologizing to each and every customer for "waiting patiently" though the wait wasn't much to speak of. And by now you know the "Chipotle" drill: choose a sandwich, choose a rice bowl, choose a salad; or, in one small departure here you can choose hummus as base. We chose the latter.
Our choice of meat (steak) was all but drowned in the many options for sauces and garnish — somewhat dry little meat chips obliterated by comforting fast-food-feeling accompaniments of garlic mayo, pickles, slaw-like cabbage salads, and hot sauces. While the end result wasn't bad, it also wasn't good. Everything lacked garlic, spice, citrus, and soul. Just as no one in their right mind would fix their mouth to truly refer to Chipotle as "Mexican," you wouldn't refer to this as Middle Eastern. Chipotle is just Chipotle, and Naf Naf is just Naf Naf. One day you might turn to your girl and say, "Girl, let's go get us a Naf Naf." Just don't call it a gyro, for the love of all things holy.
A side of fries, a fluffy pita reminiscent somehow of leavened white bread, and a little packaged baklava bringing to mind a McDonald's Apple Pie — all sugar and zero honey — sealed up this Value Meal approach to Middle Eastern.
I'll go to foodie purgatory for trying to separate "authenticity" from Americana. We're all one big melting-pot mashup, right? But I'll still take my shawarma with a hefty dose late-night "dodgy kebab" lamb grease with extra cumin. I want to smell it on my pores the next morning. It's the difference between grandma's lopsided but ethereal pie and the precision of Baker's Square, the latter being hardly worth the box it's served upon.
Naf Naf Grill U.S. Bank Plaza, 200 S. Sixth St., Minneapolis