2016 is undoubtedly the Year of the Falafel. It is the year that two young women known primarily as the chefs of a falafel stand in Grand Central Market wound up on the semifinalist list for the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Award. It's the year that falafel has gone fine dining, with a $16 version on the menu of our hottest new restaurant, Otium. Bestia's Ori Menashe is rumored to be looking to open a casual Middle Eastern restaurant focused in part on falafel. Falafel Arax, one of our old standbys, is multiplying. I could go on and on here. It's as if food culture has become collectively obsessed with Mediterranean food, and falafel in particular, all at once.
All of this means that America (and L.A. in particular) is primed for a reliable, fast casual Mediterranean/Middle Eastern spot along the lines of Chipotle. “The Chipotle of X” is a familiar enough marketing term, one that many folks have tried to jump on, with varying degrees of success. Last year, the Wall Street Journal did a survey and found more than 40 restaurants had been described as “the Chipotle of” whatever since 2008, most of them mimicking the build-your-own model as well as adopting the kind of hip look of Chipotle and the “fresh ingredients” language. (The hip look matters more than you'd think, otherwise everyone would be vying for the title “the Subway of…”)
But perhaps no cuisine is as primed for a breakout and actual success in this quest to be “the Chipotle of” something than Mediterranean food, in part because this is the Year of the Falafel, and in part because Mediterranean food makes sense in a build-your-own-using-fresh-ingredients format.
The latest place to try to become the Chipotle of Mediterranean food is Rodini Park in North Hollywood, which opened right around Dec. 1 last year in the middle of the North Hollywood Arts District. Named for Rodini Park in Rhodes, Greece, it bills itself primarily as a Greek restaurant. It also has a full in-house bakery that makes breads, cookies and various other sweets. It's a fairly ambitious operation.
But the heart of it is a classic Chipotle-like setup. You choose your plate — a salad, a pita or a bowl — then your meat or veggie filling, then your toppings, then your sauce. Most choices are $7.75 for the finished product, and everything is less than $10 unless you load up on extras.
The gyros and the falafel are all pretty standard-tasting but fresher than most other things you could get for an under-$10 quick-service lunch. The bread is fluffy, the sauces tangy, and they tuck a few fries into the gyros, as is proper. Speaking of fries, enthusiasts will be excited to know you can order a bowl with fries as the base, covering them with meat and sauce like some sort of ungodly disco fries. Rodini Park is open only until 10 p.m., but if you can start drinking early, this would make for stellar post-bar drunk food. There's also a baklava cheesecake, which is great in theory but not particularly special in practice.
Although this is the first location, everything about the place seems primed for franchise-ability, from the logo to the branded merchandise, to the already corporate (but cute!) feel of the place. There are large, wooden communal tables and a kind of rustic picnic theme — they even sell a variety of branded picnic baskets and blankets. For now, at least, Rodini Park still has a lot of personal charm, with the owner greeting you at the door, handing out samples of rosemary lemonade and practically bursting with welcoming enthusiasm.
I could live with one of these at every truck stop in America, I suppose.
Rodini Park, 11049 W. Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 358-4802, rodinipark.com.