Order a falafel wrap or beef shawarma at some family-owned Middle Eastern joints, and you might wait a bit, which can be a good thing if mom’s in the kitchen. Others churn out dishes with a bit too much of a good thing – say, feta cheese – or not enough of another, like the lone Kalamata olive hiding among the salad greens.
At Rachel’s Mediterranean, the Khoury family’s Lebanese comfort food comes out lightning fast, yet with a freshness, consistency and confidence that has satisfied many a hungry regular.
Rachel’s is named after the Khoury family’s youngest, a friendly teen working at the family’s original restaurant at 5953 Main St. in Williamsville. Her two older brothers, Joseph and Jahed, run two busier outposts on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus and, new this year, at West Chippewa and Delaware Avenue. A fourth restaurant had its soft opening earlier this month at 3860 McKinley Parkway, across from the McKinley Mall.
Like its other incarnations, the 10-year-old Williamsville location is spartan – not a framed photo or potted plant to be found – but Rachel’s roots begin here. You can tell from the brisk yet friendly service and the menu’s proclamation that “everything is homemade.”
At lunchtime, a grilled chicken salad ($6.29) showed up fast, perfectly cooked open-souvlaki-style on a bed of crisp romaine with a drizzle of garlic-lemon house dressing. I only wished there were more people in the place; it felt a little lonely.
Another evening we ordered takeout for dinner in Williamsville, also on a slower weeknight, and it arrived quickly. I enjoyed well-seasoned, juicy beef kafta kabobs ($5.99), the lemony punch of bulgur-speckled tabouli ($3.89) and a standard hummus rich with tahini ($3.49). My husband had the gyro wrap ($5.69), which was filling, if not exciting.
On the way out, we ordered a diamond of baklava ($3.49) from the dessert case, although brownies and rice pudding ($2.99 each) beckoned, too.
UB and Williamsville’s menus include a full array of hot or cold American sandwiches, hoagies and subs, and the Mediterranean dinner platters ($11.99-15.99) come with pita and two sides (rice, hummus, tabouli, a chef salad or fries).
At the UB location (use the 520 Lee Entrance), I headed in before the noon rush for a falafel pita sandwich ($5.99). The fried chickpea nuggets came with the requisite pickles, tomato, parsley and tahini, and I splashed on some hot sauce for added zing.
Rachel’s two new locations are based on Joe Khoury’s modernized “real food, real fast” concept: stripped-down menus and cafeteria-style ordering. While downtown recently, I headed to Rachel’s counter and chose a vessel (wrap, salad, rice bowl or pita chip bowl), a filling (“all natural” grilled chicken, steak souvlaki, gyro or vegan falafel) and a sauce (tzatziki, dill, house Greek, tahini or hot sauce, all made from scratch). Meats sizzled on an open grill, replenishing spotless steel containers as I contemplated the assortment of included fixings (cheeses and veggies, and as many Kalamatas as I wanted).
Fillings are $6.95, except for the steak, which is $7.95, and add-ons range from $1 for a pita to $5.95 for the Greek fries. It was nice to see the same lemony tabouli and creamy hummus as options, along with rice.
Customers then grab a pop and a napkin and are out the door. Really. There are no seats.
As much as I like to sit while eating, Rachel’s makeover appears to be a promising local version of the national trend to reduce the compromises we make for super-fast food.
“It’s hard to find vegan food, so I come here a lot and get the rice bowls,” said one female customer in the fast-moving line.
The polite staff paused long enough to let me try some tzatziki and a dollop of dill sauce on my chicken souvlaki pita bowl. Both were delicious. The chips were fried a dark brown and were deliciously crunchy, like crouton shells under fresh lettuce and a judicious sprinkling of feta. The chicken was cut into institutional-sized nuggets, but the flavor was still there.
There were just enough olives, too. I can’t remember the last time I wished for seconds from a plastic container.
With its slick online menu and Twitter feed, Rachel’s proves that older dogs can learn newer tricks, as long as attention is paid to family recipes and customer service. Next time I do business downtown, I’ll park my car a few minutes early and munch away in the front seat.