Lunch Break: Globetrot Downtown at Tazé Mediterranean Street Food

 In Food

The famous whirling dervishes of Turkey have nothing on the staff behind the counter at Tazé when things get busy. Customizing mix-and-match orders is an art many fast-casual chains have perfected—but usually without the ambitious assortment of exotic dishes Tazé offers. The first stop along the food counter is a 500-degree stone hearth oven baking a steady supply of puffy pita bread. From there it’s an ever-deeper immersion into Mediterranean dishes from Europe, Asia and northern Africa.

Taze Mediterranean Street Food | Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

Taze Mediterranean Street Food | Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

For their first restaurant, owners and brothers Casey and Justin Roth set their sights high, from the big things (a built-in tandoor oven) to the small (Moroccan spices in the housemade ketchup). The duo turned to chef Matt Borchardt to oversee the menu and SPACE Architecture + Design to handle the interior. The results harmonize perfectly, inviting both the eyes and the taste buds to relax and enjoy.

Workday Refueling

There are plenty of ethnic eateries Downtown, but part of Tazé’s novelty is the diverse cuisine it offers, primarily Turkish and Moroccan. Building on a base of salad greens, saffron rice or pita (whole grain or white), customers choose a protein, toppings, sauce, side and hummus (original, chipotle, jalapeno-cilantro or caramelized onion and balsamic). It’s possible to play it relatively safe with a tandoor-cooked kebab of pork, chicken or beef, toppings like tomatoes and cucumber, a tzatziki sauce (“like ranch with cucumber,” my son said) and a side of hand-cut French fries. Or, you could try the gyro-style beef and lamb sauced with a mildly spicy harissa and a side of baba ghanoush, an eggplant-based dip.

Exploring the sides could easily be a meal in itself — they’re fabulously fresh and flavorful, and at just $2 each, they’re a bargain to boot. If you’re having trouble deciding, opt for the couscous or tabbouleh, both based on recipes from Justin Roth’s Turkish grandmother-in-law. Other options from the a la carte menu include a stuffed pita shell, falafel and crunchy pita chips with hummus.

Desserts are arrayed temptingly at the end of the line. Like the savory dishes, the sweets are made on-site. The Moroccan cookies are flavored with a North African spice blend, called ras el-hanout, that the team first encountered in Marrakesh. The baklava is a classic rendition: not syrupy but still plenty sweet.

Taze Mediterranean Street Food | Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

Taze Mediterranean Street Food | Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

After-Hours Refreshments

Starting at 4pm, Tazé adds happy-hour menu items —and gives everyone an excuse to sample one of the six local craft breweries on tap or have a glass of wine from Spain, Italy or France. Like tapas or meze, the added items are sharable and simple to eat: cheesy pita (with mozzarella and feta), Turkish-style lahmacun flatbread, meatballs, spiced shrimp and fried stuffed olives. Unlike the lunchtime menu items, most of these are cooked to order, but they were ready within a few minutes of ordering.

The communal tables that might house strangers by day seem more social at night — but if you want a bit of privacy, one of the big rear tables can be curtained off. The Roths are hoping to attract a mix of families, friends and after-work socializers who just want to hang out (they’re also hoping to expand into a chain if this first location is a hit).

Their approach seems to be working, judging on how comfortably my children popped onto stools and made themselves at home. The friendly staff deserves plenty of credit for walking customers through the ordering process, offering plenty of samples and not batting an eye when questions slow down the fast-casual pace. And then there’s the top- notch location in the Mercantile Exchange building, home to a movie theater and several other restaurants — and across the street from the National Blues Museum scheduled to open later this year. Convenient, exotic and delicious — all in one.

Looking for another fast-casual spot that will have your tastebuds feeling like they’re on vacation? Check out this story from The Dish.

This story appeared in the September 2015 issue.

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