7 Best Fast Casual Restaurants To Keep On Your Radar In 2016

According to the National Restaurant Association's annual report on the top 20 predicted food trends for 2016, chef-driven fast casual restaurants are predicted to be one of the top three food trends in 2016. To underscore this prediction, and to satisfy all you free-range fried chicken sandwich loving souls out there, I've compiled a list of the seven trendiest fast casual restaurants to keep on your radar in 2016.

But first, let's take a closer look at why fast casual eateries are becoming so trendy, shifting the quick lunch crowd's focus from fast food to eateries like Shake Shack and Chipotle. First off, fast casual restaurants typically offer healthier, higher quality menu options than the more traditional fast food chains. These days consumers are willing to spend an extra $3 on a protein-rich, grass-fed beef burger. Which brings me to my second point — even with the use of higher quality ingredients, fast casuals remain relatively affordable. Typical fast casual lunch prices range from $8 to $15 — a happy medium for those who resolved to eat better and save some cash in the New Year.

And while it's comforting to know that I can always find a quick, healthy meal option at my nearest Chipotle or Panera, I'm thrilled to see new types of cuisine emerging on the fast casual market. From hydroponic basil-laden Neapolitan pizza to Sichuan hand-pulled noodles and Nashville-style hot chicken, these seven fast casual restaurants are sure to please hungry, high quality craving crowds well into the New Year, and beyond.

1. Beefsteak

Beefsteak is what Washington, D.C. chef José Andrés describes as "fast good" — a fast casual build-your-own-bowl concept designed to bring high quality veggies, grains, and proteins to the masses. As the "Vegetables, Unleashed" tagline implies, diners can choose to either build their own veg-centric bowl, or reach for a Beefsteak signature bowl like the Frida Kale — a colorful assortment of rice, kale, black bean sauce, spicy tomato sauce, fresh cherry tomatoes, scallions, corn nuts, pumpkin seeds, cranberries, and lemon honey dressing. And to think, all that energy for a mere $8.49.

Beefsteak's two Washington, D.C. locations are open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. A third location is slated to open in Philadelphia in early 2016.

2. Cultura Pizza e Vita

Using its revolutionary 800-degree rotary stone electric hearth oven, this New York City-based pizza joint cooks its 12-inch rounds of Neapolitan-style pies in just one minute. "It’s not gas, it’s not wood," says Cultura founder and owner Lorenzo Randisi. "When the charcoal goes under the pizza, it’s actually not good for your body. The new generation oven 20 years from now... it’s going to be electric. You plug it in like an iPhone. It’s not a microwave. It’s just heat." Topping-wise, Cultura customers can choose from a range of fresh and healthy options like house-made mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, homegrown hydroponic basil, and black truffle oil. All cooked in one minute — for less than $20.

Cultura Pizza e Vita is open every day from 12 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at 151 Mott Street, New York, NY.

3. LocoL

Kogi Korean BBQ chef Roy Choi recently expanded his culinary horizons with the highly anticipated opening of LocoL — the South LA-based cross-cultural eatery that aims to make fresh, healthy fast food affordable in a neighborhood that historically has had little access to such fare. While the menu is still evolving, current customers can indulge in $2 stuffed tacos aka "foldies," $6 mixed-bean chili bowls, and $4 turkey burgers made with shredded barbecue turkey sandwiched between crispy fermented rice buns. Word on the street is breakfast is coming soon.

LocoL is open every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 1950 E 103rd Street, Los Angeles, CA.

4. Fat Noodle

Listed as one of Eater's 49 most anticipated restaurant openings of 2015, Joshua Skenes' San Francisco-based Fat Noodle will take after the Chipotle service model, allowing guests to customize their hand-pulled noodle bowls in assembly line-style, adding broth, sauces, proteins, and toppings for less than $10 a bowl. While progress has been slower than anticipated, Sichuan chili-heads are looking forward to seeing this fast casual Chinese eatery open its doors in 2016.

Fat Noodle will be located at 92 Second Street, San Francisco, CA.

5. Federal Donuts

As local legend goes, this Philadelphia-based fried chicken and doughnut joint completely sold out of food by 9:30 a.m. on its first day of business. And for good reason — chef Michael Solomonov believes in quality and consistency, the central tenants of his signature 36-hour fried chicken-making process. Once fried to a super crispy deep golden brown, chef Matt Fein dresses the veg-fed Coleman Natural chicken in a variety of house-made glazes and seasonings like honey ginger, soy garlic, and coconut curry. A half chicken plus honey doughnut combo will run you a whopping $9.25.

Check Federal Donuts' website for varying hours across their five Philadelphia locations.

6. Uma Temakeria

Chef Chris Jaeckle's Uma Temakeria specializes in two things: portable cone-shaped sushi rolls known as "temaki," and the sushi burrito — an incredible combination of fresh tuna, salmon, veggies, rice, and sauce tightly wrapped in a perfectly toasted sheet of nori. As if this beloved fast casual New York hotspot couldn't get any better, Uma recently added ramen to its menu. Swoon.

Uma Temakeria is open every day from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at 64 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY.

7. Chick's Fry House

Chef Robert Stehling of Charleston, South Carolina-based Chick's Fry House has officially hopped on the Nashville-style hot chicken bandwagon, offering up baskets of its 100 percent hormone and antibiotic free Spring Mountain fried chicken in two flavors: hot and extra hot. Enjoy a basket with two sides and a biscuit for 11 bucks.

Chick's Fry House is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 1011 King Street, Charleston, South Carolina.

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