From the bright orange logo to the stainless-steel condiments bar, these spick-and-span little shops are as groovy as fast food gets. They were founded by seasoned New York restaurateur Louie Lanza, who began experimenting with healthful dishes at his larger establishments and never looked back. When Lanza's not chasing down suppliers of organic ingredients, he's sniffing out potential new restaurant sites. SITE VISIT 178 Eighth Ave., New York City. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Quarter-pounders of ostrich, turkey, chicken, tuna, or soy—or bigger burgers made from lean organic beef—topped with shredded romaine, julienned tomatoes, and sweet pickles, $4.95-$6.95. The "fries," $2.50, are organic potatoes "air-baked" in a special oven. Also salads, stir-fries, and a blue plate-special meat loaf with mashed potatoes. KIDS' MENU None, though the nitrate-free hot dogs (beef, turkey, or soy), burgers, and lemonade sweetened with apple and grape juiceare ideal for smaller appetites. FUN FACTOR For our kids, the main form of entertainment was squirting Better Burger's custom ketchups and dressings into tiny dipping cups—care for wasabi sauce on those fries? WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Chocolate-chip cookies (85 percent organic ingredients) and a creamy coconut-mango smoothie. STEVE SAYS "It's not the burger of my dreams, but it's not bad either." BOTTOM LINE We shelled out double what we would have spent at a standard fast-food joint, but the kids didn't seem to mind (or even notice) the whole-wheat burger rolls, and the surprisingly crispy fries get our golden nugget award. We can't wait for this one to go national.
Three Manhattan locations and seven more planned for New York, followed by openings across the country (www.betterburgernyc.com).
Chipotle Mexican Grill
It started as a burrito joint in Denver back in 1993. Steve Ells, a chef who'd trained at the Culinary Institute of America and cooked at Stars in San Francisco, thought he'd try a gourmet version of a Mexican taquería, with the idea of rolling his profits into a "real restaurant." Instead, his burrito place was a hit, and Ells began opening more and more Chipotle outlets. The chain caught the eye of McDonald's, which bought into the company in 1998 and by 2001 had become the majority owner. Through it all Ells has stayed in control and the food quality has remained high. The company serves half a million pounds of organic beans a year, and has signed up free-range-pork supplier Niman Ranch. SITE VISIT 150 E. 44th St., New York City. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Burritos—big, handheld torpedoes—made of juicy cubes of steak, shredded beef, shredded pork, or grilled chicken wrapped in large, somewhat rubbery tortillas along with rice and beans, $4.85-$5.50. Also fajitas, tacos, and corn chips with guacamole. KIDS' MENU None, but they'll make a quesadilla ($1.50-$3) or single taco ($2.50), or simply scoop up some rice and beans ($1.50). FUN FACTOR Get the kids guessing what chipotle means (answer: a smoked, dried jalapeño pepper). Next question: how do you pronounce it? (That's chi-poat-lay.) WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Nada, but after polishing off a burrito, you probably won't want it anyway. DANIEL SAYS "Those burritos are messy. You need to use two hands and a lot of napkins." BOTTOM LINE Healthy food disguised as fun food. We'll be back.
More than 350 restaurants coast-to-coast (www.chipotle.com).
From the Healthy Kids menu to the blown-up photo of a yellow VW bus emblazoned with bumper stickers, Evos is out to appeal to families. Burgers and fries here have less fat and cholesterol and fewer calories than the norm, and instead of shakes there are smoothies made with fresh fruit. The chain's three founders say they're committed to running their business in a way that's kind to the planet (note the earth logo). There's a recycling center right in the store, though a meal results in the usual litter of wrappings. The Evos name is derived from the word evolution and is meant to suggest a more "evolved" fast-food chain. SITE VISIT 609 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, Florida. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Quarter-pound soy, turkey, veggie, trout, or steak burgers dressed with crisp iceberg, a beefy slice of tomato, onion, and ketchup on a better-than-average roll, $3.74-$3.97. "Airfries" with five grams of fat per serving (compared with 22 grams for a medium-sized order at McDonald's), $1.49. Also wraps with spinach herb or honey whole wheat tortillas and salads made with organic greens. KIDS' MENU Plain burgers, breaded chicken strips, batter-dipped soy dogs, 16-ounce smoothies. FUN FACTOR Two TV's on mute, one tuned to a kids' channel; a magazine rack. WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Famous Amos cookies and banana-nut bread. "They should use that blender to mix up a chocolate-Tofutti smoothie," suggested a customer at the table next to ours. HANNAH SAYS "This smoothie is great; it's got real chunks of mango in it." BOTTOM LINE We've never been wild about soy burgers, but Evos's moist, nicely seasoned Champion could change that. And we'll have another smoothie while we're at it.
Three restaurants in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area; a nationwide franchise plan is in the works (www.evos.com).