Here in our surreal hometown, foodies who follow local media reports might think the hottest restaurant trend is the sudden explosion of new eateries from national superstar chefs, who, mere centuries after Ponce de Leon, discovered Florida last year. Nope. Out there in the Real World, according to restaurant industry analysts, the fastest-growing market segment is something called "fast-casual" (alternatively "quick-casual" or "quality quick-serve") restaurants. The concept combines fast-food speed and service (diners order at a counter rather than at their tables, and food's supposedly ready seconds after the check's paid) with high-quality food.
Okay, make that "higher" quality. We are, after all, not talking about Café Boulud. The basic shtick differentiating "casual" from "fast" food isn't creativity or authenticity. It's freshness.
Okay, make that relative freshness. Fast-casual restaurants invariably, at least, advertise that they have no freezers. This is meant to imply that everything is made fresh-on-premises, that very day! Cynics may safely assume that, with no freezers, everything must at least be acquired from elsewhere within a week or so of serving it.
At Miami's branch of the Atlanta-based Moe's Southwest Grill, an Americanized Mexican-inspired franchise like most fast-casual restaurants (Wendy's has owned Baja Fresh Mexican Grill since 2002; McDonald's bought Chipotle Mexican Grill in 1998; Jack In the Box owns Qdoba Mexican Grill), there are several additional gimmicks. One is a sort of 1970s Vietnam/hippie-era ambiance, conveyed by posters of John Lennon, the Grateful Dead, etc.; music from this era is also supposed to be a Moe's franchise feature, but the sound system must have been busted flatter than any of the poster bands ever were, because my buddies and I ate in silence.
Another Moe's quirk is humor, of a sort. The "southwestern" dishes -- which are in fact just standard Tex-Mex tacos, burritos, etc., nothing imaginative -- are named stuff like "Joey Bag of Donuts" (a rice, bean, "meat" -- chicken, beef, or tofu -- cheese, and salsa burrito) and "The Other Lewinsky" (a bean, "meat," cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, and guacamole taco). Ho ho ... huh? In fact, I can't for the life of me figure what relevance the items' names have to their ingredients. So what's so funny?
But probably the main draw is Moe's relative healthiness, since no lard or other animal fats are used, and the chief cooked ingredients are marinated and grilled rather than fried. Unfortunately, though, everything seems to be marinated in the same thing, and steamtabling of everything after it's grilled, presumably earlier that day, adds to an institutional uniformity. "Did your Lewinsky taste exactly like the Homewrecker [a rice, beans, "meat," cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, and guacamole burrito], the Art Vandalay [a rice, beans, tofu, cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, and guacamole burrito], and the Fat Sam [a tofu, cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, and guacamole fajita]?" whispered a vegetarian friend who'd tried everything except my beef taco. It did taste the same, right down to the soft corn shell whose texture, astonishingly, was identical to the burritos' and fajitas' flour tortilla wraps. Which all came from plastic bags.
Not on the menu were two vegetable garnishes, onion/peppers and mushrooms, that were worthy adds in terms of fresh, fairly tasty crunch (and a bit of oil) -- but don't bother getting both. They were spiced identically, so only the textures varied. The same can be said for the three salsas on the self-serve accouterments bar. Pico de gallo was a bit chunkier than the other two sauces, but otherwise they could have been identical triplets.
Of my taste-testing group, only my two-year-old colleague appeared satisfied with her selection, a Puff the Magic Dragon taco. But she refused to touch Moe's standard fast-food lemonade, and the group grownups found both the lime and strawberry Moe-Ritas, margaritas made with wine instead of tequila, unspeakable. Fans of white zinfandel might like them.
Admittedly Moe's is a big step up the gourmet ladder from Taco Bell. And diners do get a lot of food for $3 to $8. Plus it's pretty healthy food. It is not, however, very interesting food.
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