A Middle Eastern Must
Perhaps the Los Olivos center is Irvine’s incubator to see how San Diego concepts fare in Orange County, as The Kebab Shop has followed a similar formula to Puesto’s, only faster. The first Irvine location of the growing chain serving fast casual Middle Eastern cuisine opened in Spring 2018 in the original part of the retail center across the 405 from the Spectrum. The second debuted just a few months later and only 7.5 miles away in the Harvard Place center, at Main and Harvard.
No doubt there is expert advice and data-driven approaches to opening new locations, looking at consumer demographics, commercial mix, and other factors. But all a restaurateur needs to do is drive the 405 from Jamboree to Irvine Center Drive at dinner time to see that the seven-mile difference may as well be 20: if the food and service are good, they’ll have a captive and hungry audience for each.
Luckily for the owners of The Kebab Shop, they’ve nailed it on all counts. The clean and well-designed restaurants specializing in European-style döner kebabs, a Turkish dish made of roasted meat cooked on a vertical spit (think shawarma and gyros, though Turks often claim originating credit). The dish gained popularity in Germany in the 1980s, especially as wraps. The Kebab Shop offers them as wraps, as plates or wrapped in flatbread. There are also made-to-order grilled kebabs, the pieces of meat served on the stick many of us think of when we hear kebab.
The Kebab Shop’s fast-casual experience is often described as a Middle Eastern Chipotle, in that one chooses a protein (chicken, beef, lamb, falafel), a delivery method (wrap, plate, etc.), sides and sauces and the dish is created for you.
But there is a key difference from the fast-casual Mexican chain born in Denver and now based in Newport Beach: service. The best way to elevate the fast-casual experience is to have staff that actually seems to care about the customer, especially after they pick up their food or its delivered tableside. The better Mexican restaurant example is Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. At the Orange County-based chain you of course order at the counter, and your food is dropped off. But have you ever noticed they don’t pick up your number right away? That’s because the servers are trained to come by a second or even third time to “touch the table” and check to see if you need anything.
My experiences at The Kebab Shop have all included high levels of customer satisfaction. The staff has been unfailingly friendly, with excellent service throughout the meal. Of the two locations, I prefer the one at Harvard and Main, mainly because it has more windows. Both have fun interiors will cool graphics, including an entire wall quoting the many accolades the restaurant has received, including one of “Best Cheap Eats in San Diego” by San Diego Magazine, “The 12 Most Important Restaurants in San Diego,” by Thrilllist, and “Top 20 Regional Chains We Wish Would Go National,” by Zagat.
Orange County Register critic Brad A. Johnson has also given the chain his seal of approval, naming the chicken Doner wrap the “best thing he ate” last November. Johnson likes it when the wrap is slightly charred, similar to the crust of a good Neapolitan pizza: “When it burns, that’s when this bread truly comes alive… just enough to char it around the edges, just enough to make dime-sized air pockets swell inside the bread, then burst open and catch fire. The Kebab Shop’s bread is incredible. The way it tastes, the way it feels in your hand, the way it smells, it’ll remind you of the street vendors in Istanbul. The fillings become almost inconsequential — but not irrelevant. In particular, the chicken döner is superb.”
My experience with the wraps hasn’t been quite that poetic. It’s the combination of the chicken skewers and salads that sold me. I’ve had most of the salads on the menu. Favorites are the kale salad with quinoa, walnuts and cranberries, and the Bebe Caprese, with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Both were better than many salads from full-service restaurants.
Note that while kids meals are not listed on the in-store menu, there is the option of a smaller serving of meat with two sides. And those meals are free on weekends with the purchase of an adult meal and drink. Yes, free!
Middle Eastern food is having its moment, both locally and nationally—though several up-and-coming chains prefer the “Mediterranean” moniker. Big money is pouring into chains like Cava, Naf Naf and The Hummus & Pita Co. It seems certain that one of them will emerge as a major Middle Eastern chain.
We’d be happy if the winner of that particular competition is The Kebab Shop, so they add several more locations in Irvine, and throughout SoCal.