In our fuel-up-and-move-on world, there’s something refreshing and all-too rare about a fast-casual restaurant that doesn’t feel all that … well … fast.

 

It could be upscale décor, outstanding service, quality of food or a blend of those and other intangibles that make you want to linger and savor.

And so it is at Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain that opened in February on the site of a former Golden Corral on Beach Boulevard near San Pablo Road. While I feel safe saying it will never be mistaken for a plush steakhouse or hip bistro, Taziki’s feels a solid notch above much of its counter service, take-a-number brethren.

The dining room feels lush and well appointed, with faux-exposed block and prints of whitewashed Greek island landscapes surrounding dark-wood tables, high-tops and short booths. Food is served on real plates with real silverware.

The menu, available seven days a week for lunch and dinner, is a compilation of pan-Mediterranean standards such as gyros wraps and grilled meat platters. But when you hail from a place like Birmingham, a little Southern is bound to sneak in. Case in point: spicy pimento cheese is an appetizer and a sandwich here. Meats here also aren’t carved from spits, but rather sliced fresh daily.

Pimento cheese notwithstanding, the Taziki’s brand clearly embodies healthy living and eating. The chain was the first to become REAL Certified, a mark of healthful, sustainably sourced foods from the U.S. Healthful Food Council. Vegetarian options are plentiful and clearly marked, and those who maintain vegan or gluten-free diets can request separate pans and cooking utensils.

I headed out to the Taziki’s Intracoastal West location last Sunday afternoon for a quick lunch and started with a bowl of the Homemade Greek Lemon Chicken Soup ($3.99). I expected a light lemony broth but instead found a darker blend teeming with a delightfully thick mix of rosemary, shredded chicken and basmati rice. It was chunky enough to be a light meal, and it arrived piping hot.

The Greek Salad Gyro ($6.99) came very well dressed with diced tomato, cucumber, roasted red pepper, red onion, lettuce, feta and Greek dressing in a soft, warm pita. When you get it with grilled chicken, a $2 upcharge, it comes as long, grilled strips as opposed to diced, which should save you a little bit of clean-up.

All sandwich platters come with ridged potato chips and one of five “healthy sides.” Ever the calorie-conscious reviewer, I opted for the tomato-cucumber salad and craved its tangy balsamic-and-dill one-two punch, punctuated with lots of onion and feta. It was a flavor overachiever and I didn’t miss the calories one bit.

Fresh fish lovers would do well to try the Grilled Tilapia with Caper-Dill Sauce ($8.99). The nice portion of perfectly grilled, flaky and moist filet came with lettuce and tomato in a soft Kaiser bun. The side of pasta salad tossed rotini with diced tomato and feta and was a competent accompaniment.

Taziki’s offers a trio of sweet treats on its menu, including dark chocolate cake and chocolate chip cookies, but no trip to a Mediterranean restaurant is complete without a slice of baklava. They get it from Hellas, a Greek bakery in Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa. It was flaky, chewy and sweet, but it was delivered to my table in a clear plastic to-go cube instead of plated for my dine-in enjoyment. That’s a common beef I have with most fast-casual places.

For liquid refreshment, Taziki’s also offers beer and wine by the glass or bottle, with three Florida-brewed crafts and eight vintages, including Greek wine. Along with daily food specials, they also host occasional theme nights such as Wine Down Wednesdays, with 50 percent off wine bottles and half-price appetizers.

While the Beach Boulevard location was Taziki’s first in the area, it won’t be the last. Franchisee John Figert is planning up to nine stores in Northeast Florida, with a second location opening in mid-December at the Earth Fare-anchored Mandarin South Shopping Center at San Jose Boulevard and Loretto Road.

For fresh and healthy in a hurry … or maybe not in a hurry … Taziki’s fits the bill and is a very pleasant dine.

For more of Jay’s dining experiences, visit his blog at www.jaymagee.com.