Naf Naf Grill: The “Chipotle of Falafel”
A stern black exterior belies a din of organized chaos and a warm respite from the blustery weather inside Naf Naf Grill. Stepping in isn’t unlike stumbling into one of the shabby late-night falafel shops so beloved by ravenous revelers in America’s coastal metropolises and in cities abroad. A line of excited, chatty and hungry customers winds nearly out the door, and tall carousels of glistening shwarma twist temptingly behind workers who take orders and assemble pitas at breakneck pace.
The difference, though, is that the frantic quest for express-style, grease-heavy fare is streamlined at Naf Naf into a clean, orderly and distinctly Chipotle-like experience that caters to the customer and makes the question of quality and food safety transparent. As though the aroma itself weren’t enough to stoke the appetite, patrons in line are able to peer into the bakery nook where employees make Naf Naf’s pita bread by hand. The quaint, cozy and clean space is decked with stylized camel imagery, warm colors and quippy phrases like “Hummus is delicious—so spread it!”
Naf Naf’s model fuses the voracious enthusiasm for Middle Eastern food, capitalized on by predecessors like New York City’s famous Mamoun’s, with the focus on fresh ingredients and the output-maximizing ordering system of Chipotle. Customers choose between a pita, salad or a plate, all of which can feature either chicken or beef shwarma or falafel as a protein. Toppings like red cabbage, tabbouleh, pickles and hot peppers round out the meals, along with sauces like garlic, tahini, hot sauce and, of course, hummus. Then, there are the side choices: lentil soup, Basmati rice, baba ganoush, Israeli salad and more.
If it were open later, one might wonder whether Naf Naf might just prove the next late-night rival to Cheesie’s and Sarpino’s for popular drunchies-fix-of-choice: the food dishes out exactly the dose of grease one craves, without going overboard. The added comfort of wholesome, homemade ingredients and inherent Mediterranean nutritional goodness makes it that much better. Not to mention, the portion-to-price ratio can’t be beat. For now, though, it seems to be doing perfectly fine as everyone’s new favorite lunch spot.
At the peak lunchtime hour of noon, I ordered and quickly received an immaculate pita whose finely orchestrated mess mirrored the atmosphere of the restaurant: four freshly-fried falafels tucked inside a warm, soft pita accompanied by layers of hummus, cabbage, sumac onions and Israeli salad, along with just enough garlic sauce. The speed at which I devoured it is a bit embarrassing, but also a testament to the food’s perfection in both flavor and form.
Perhaps the real dark horse of the Naf Naf menu is its “fries.” However, names can be deceptive, because these are more like a softer, denser version of fresh, homemade potato chips. They’re so good you’ll be silenced for the full five minutes it will take to funnel the whole pile into your mouth. And while I’m not so lucky as to have had enough homemade baklava in my life to really critique any version of it, I can say that Naf Naf’s is a must-try if you still have room after the main event. With layers of buttery, flaky phyllo, honey and chopped pistachios atop a rich, pie-like crust, it’s sure to please.
Born in nearby Naperville, Ill., Naf Naf quickly grew from a family owned shop to a popular chain touting 8 locations in the area with 2 more coming soon—and the reason for the boom is clear. With its addictive food and its unique position in an untapped market for quick, quality, casual Mediterranean meals, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Naf Naf go national one day soon.
Address: 1629 Orrington Ave Evanston, IL 60201
Hour of Operation: Sun-Thurs: 11 am to 9 pm, Fri-Sat: 11 am to 10 pm