Have a ball 

Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill inspires indulgence with customer service as robust as its flavors

Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill is a Colorado chain on its way to becoming one of the bigger chains in the country. In May, it gave franchiser Doherty Enterprises permission to open roughly 50 restaurants on the East Coast.

The business, hatched by former Panera Bread executive Alon Mor, already boasts 10 Denver locations, and one in Colorado Springs' Southgate area. Two more — on Powers Boulevard and at the Promenade Shops at Briargate — should open in the next six months. It's been a torrid pace, says Troy Speakman, general manager for the Southgate store.

"Actually right now, I think we're kind of slowing down a bit," he says, "just so we can get more managers trained to manage the stores."

Started in 2007, the company has created jobs left and right during some pretty bad times, making it hard to begrudge the rubber-stamp strategy. Having a friendly face thrust a free falafel round in your hand, which is how most visits begin, doesn't hurt a first impression, either.

The shtick is aimed at helping with culinary shock, says Speakman.

"The falafel is twofold," he says. "First off, if it's your first time in the store, you've probably never eaten a falafel. Also, if you have had falafel from somewhere else, you might be getting a completely different version than what you're used to eating."

All recipes come from Mor's mother, via Jerusalem, where he grew up. To the homemade recipes, add nods to new trends — signage related to gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian dining choices, for instance — and it's clear Garbanzo has cracked our current comestibles climate.

Ordering is done fast-casual, à la Chipotle Mexican Grill. Unless you're buying a kids' meal, you pick your courier of choice — white or wheat pita, plate, laffa tortilla, or salad, complete with caloric range — then select your protein. Both the chicken ($6.29) and the steak ($6.69) have an enjoyable charred flavor, while the hard outside crunch of the falafel ($5.99) yields to softness, lemon and strong spices.

An employee will likely hand you a free homemade chip before you move to Filling Central. Some options: velvety hummus; standard rice; tiny balls of cilantro-y red cabbage tabuleh; smoky, garlic-rich baba ganoush; pretty average vegetable salad; and pickles and pickled eggplant, bringing some back-end heat.

For drizzle, skip the ranch-like Mediterranean garlic and standard cilantro tahini and greet the impressive amba and red chili sauces. The former offers turmeric-heavy tang; the latter, potent burn. And speaking of skipping, go soup-less: The Mediterranean lentil and Moroccan bean are both extremely tame.

Most entrée flavors are strong enough that your creation will simply taste like a pleasant amalgamation of what you put in it — assuming it stays in one piece. I packed a laffa to Chipotle proportions, and it fell apart after two bites. Meanwhile, my girlfriend's pita held in one clean piece all the way to the end. (The combination plate is also good for immaculate consumption.)

But the customer service here actually may leave the most enduring taste. Managers visit tables to check diner satisfaction, something I've never encountered in a place like this. I was always asked if I had any questions. And the ingredients of anything were known and explained.

Though Garbanzo's feel will likely never rival, nor even aim for, the authenticity of some our local Mediterranean masters, its service as a non-threatening introduction to this cuisine has an appeal all its own.


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