Chicken shawarma bowl at Naf Naf Grill (Lenny Gilmore )
If you think hummus is yummus, here's some very good news: The Loop has just added two new pita-packed Middle Eastern restaurants. In July, Lebanon-based Abou Andre Mediterranean Bistro (60 E. Jackson Boulevard 312-386-1300) launched its first U.S. location in the Loop's south end. A few blocks northwest, suburban favorite Naf Naf Grill (309 W. Washington St. 312-251-9000) fired up the grill at its first city location earlier this month. That's a serious uptick in kabobs, falafel and shawarma. Since these two newcomers have similar menus and price points, we pitted them against one another to see which has more pita appeal.
Abou Andre: The name means "son of Andre" and is a reference to the original owner, Andre, who opened the first Lebanon location in 1976. (His son brought the total up to eight.) Managing partner Robert Magiet, who launched fast-food Indian spot Curried (171 N. Wells St.) in 2011, says the original owner's grandsons decided to open an Abou Andre in Chicago because of its diverse culture and reasonable rent.
Naf Naf: The eatery's expansion was the work of two financial professionals who went to lunch one day at the original Naperville location. They liked it so much they decided to form a partnership with the owners, Tel Aviv natives Sahar Sander and Elan Burger. "My partner and I loved the food, saw how busy it was, formed a partnership and opened another location," co-owner David Sloan says. Since 2010, they've opened locations in Aurora, Niles and Chicago.
Advantage: For its authentic Middle East roots, Abou Andre takes the lead.
Abou Andre: Expect seating for 38, photos of the Lebanese location and an open kitchen where cooks prepare chicken kebab ($7.99) and beef and lamb qawarma hummus plates ($7.99).
Naf Naf: The interior includes glass tile and quirky sayings on the wall, such as "Get some shawarma for your mama" and "Start a pita revolution." There's seating for 70, but lunch crowds waiting for chicken shawarma bowls ($6.99) stretch out the door some days.
Advantage: Naf Naf, you had us at "Shawarma for your mama."
Abou Andre: The Chicago Abou Andre dishes up more meat than the Lebanese locations, according to Magiet.
Naf Naf: You'll find the same popular Israeli dishes as the suburban locations, but the downtown menu has been trimmed to ensure fast service, Sloan said.
Advantage: Both menus include mouth-watering Middle Eastern fare, and both are open for both lunch and dinner. But with more than 15 entrees, compared to Naf Naf's five (available as pitas or bowls), Abou Andre's offers more extensive options.
Abou Andre: Tahini-topped twists include the falafel wrap ($5.99), fried fresh to order and made with fava beans instead of the more common chickpea base. "Most people aren't accustomed to it," Magiet says. "It's crisp outside and moist on the inside."
Naf Naf: Popular Naf Naf nosh includes the German-and-Middle-Eastern-themed chicken schnitzel pita ($6.59) and chicken shawarma pita ($6.59)—Sloan estimates the Chicago location produces about 440 lbs of shawarma a day.
Advantage: Both have put their own tweaks on tradition, but Naf Naf's inventive eats—schnitzel in a pita?—get points for creativity.
Abou Andre: Love the oversized Lebanese-style pitas? They're baked for the restaurant by a local Lebanese bakery, and you can pick up extras for $1. Lentil soup and a new take on a chicken kebab are in the works to debut in the coming weeks.
Naf Naf: Pitas are baked on-site, resulting in some of the freshest, fluffiest we've had lately. Take-home packs of six pitas ($3.99) are sold when available.
Advantage: Abou Andre's still-expanding menu is promising, but making the extra effor to bake its own pitas on-site is rare and gives Naf Naf the upper hand.
We have to give pita props to Abou Andre for choosing Chicago as its first U.S. outpost, but locally grown Naf Naf edges out a win in the end. But with two new options for under-$10 Loop lunching, downtown diners are the real winners.
Erin Brereton is a RedEye special contributor. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago
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