The day CAVA arrived in Philadelphia the line for bowls of vaguely Mediterranean food stretched over a block. Its arrival was written up in the local news as another sign that our city was maybe just as good as our neighboring braggarts, New York and DC. I resisted CAVA for no clear reason, ignoring my co-workers as they tried to talk me into downloading the restaurant’s app. “It’s like Chipotle but for Mediterranean food! I’ll get three dollars if you sign up!” I knew how much money these people earned, and none of them needed three dollars.
Over months, though, my resolve began to weaken. Lines of office workers continued to snake around CAVA, and every day my desk mates debated whether they should get lunch from CAVA or… CAVA. This restaurant, I realized, must be offering the most delicious bowls of food my city had ever seen. If I ate there one time I would doom myself for life, I would never be able to return to the Gyro King food cart’s $5 falafel over rice (including soda!). I would never again trek to the humble Mama’s Vegetarian for my $4.50 half-size falafel sandwich (with free pickles!). Every day I would have to spend $11 to eat this glorious lunch.
By the time I’d decided to risk my bank account on CAVA addiction, even a quick perusal of Yelp and a photograph of a full-grown cricket in one man’s salad bowl could not dissuade me. I crafted my bowl on CAVA’s website, any lingering resistance crumbling at the thought of adding as many toppings to my bowl as I liked. Tomato and onion salad, tomato and cucumber salad, feta, pickled hot peppers! I love pickles! Before I knew it I had entered my credit card number and selected a pickup time for my half-rice, half-lentil falafel bowl with hummus, baba ghanoush, “crazy feta,” and nearly every available topping. Pushing past the line of fools who hadn’t thought to order ahead, I retrieved my bowl from an unguarded station and trotted back to my desk to dutifully edit a PowerPoint as I ate. An efficient lunch, I thought. I was now truly one of the skyscraper worker bees.
I unwrapped my pita (it was free!) to find it an oddly flat and perfectly circular disk. This was not a pita with an air pocket, this was not a pita that would leave my hands dusted with an honest layer of flour. This worried me slightly, but I moved on to a falafel, a tiny brownish sphere that resisted my fork. No problem! I ran to the kitchen for a knife, and after some sawing at the rubberized ball was able to identify a single whole chickpea at its center. This probably was a falafel, I thought, though like no falafel I had ever seen. It was oddly tasteless, with the texture of solidified glue. I suspect it was at some point boiled, or perhaps microwaved. It is hard to imagine the corporate kitchen in which this product was engineered. Someone is probably proud of this falafel.
I began to long for the excitement and crunch of a cricket in my bowl, something to jazz things up. I thought of the Gyro King with his ovaloid fried falafel balls atop a bed of turmeric-colored rice and vegetables, with occasional cardamom pods or cloves or bits of cinnamon stick to pick out. Why had I forsaken him? What had he ever done to me, besides smiling and asking how I was and did I still want hot sauce and white sauce on my falafel over rice? (Yes! Always yes!) I ate the remainder of my Cava bowl as punishment, vowing to never tell the Gyro King what I had done. This is a secret that will die with me, unless he has set up Google alerts on himself, in which case: I’m sorry, Gyro King. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!