Food & Drink

Fast-casual La Granja and Zona Fresca restaurants add flavor to South Florida’s food options

Grilled veggies: Nopales are a unique salad ingredient at Zona Fresca.
Grilled veggies: Nopales are a unique salad ingredient at Zona Fresca. Zona Fresca

As South Florida’s population becomes more diverse, so does its food landscape.

Two of the region’s most successful fast-casual restaurant chains, La Granja and Zona Fresca, were started here by new arrivals who brought with them a taste of their native cuisines. Along the way, consistent food and hospitable customer service have earned both groups legions of followers and continued success.

La Granja Restaurants

Where: Miami, Doral, Hialeah, South Beach, North Miami, Kendall, Hallandale Beach, Weston, Margate, Fort Lauderdale, Deerfield Beach and other locations in Florida and Aruba.

Founded: 1993 in Aruba.

Atmosphere: Casual.

Essentials: Chicken, pork, steak, seafood.

More info: lagranjarestaurants.com.

Peruvian Gustavo Bartra and his family opened their first La Granja (“the farm”) on the island of Aruba in 1993. The Bartras moved to South Florida and opened a Margate location in 1995, serving the restaurant’s signature Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken with buttery white rice, black beans and plantains (which the menu refers to as “bananas” — helpful to gringo diners).

Other locations soon followed, throughout South Florida and north to Orlando and west to Fort Myers; about 40 at last count. Prices continue to be very affordable, with generous portions and full combo meals for less than $5. With an unpretentious presentation and high value, the family-owned chain is especially popular among working people.

“It’s the American success story,” said Claudia Bartra, Gustavo’s daughter and general manager of La Granja’s Miami-Dade and Broward County restaurants. “We came to this country with very little, worked hard and provide our customers with good food at a great price. We all benefit. Our employees are part of our family, and we’re happy to share our success.”

When asked about having black beans on the menu — isn’t that more Cuban than Peruvian? — Bartra laughed.

“We’re a Latin American restaurant serving Peruvian-influenced food,” she said. “Our main thing is to give people what they want. It seems to be working, and 40 percent of our customers are non-Latin. We love the fact that our food appeals to everyone.”

The basic menu has grown through the years.

“We experimented with seafood in 1998, and it became so popular, we added several items to our regular menu,” Bartra said.

The menu now includes ceviche, a Peruvian favorite, and jalea, a fried seafood dish. They also offer lomo saltado (sautéed beef with tomatoes), considered the national dish of Peru. Bartra said that each restaurant prepares its food fresh on the premises.

“We start from zero every day,” she said.

Though she wouldn’t be specific, Bartra said La Granja has plans for further expansion, beyond Florida.

“There’s a lot of interest, but we want to be careful to maintain our focus on providing great food and value to our customers.”

Zona Fresca

Where: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Plantation, Pompano Beach, Coral Springs and Weston, plus New York and New Jersey.

Founded: 2001 in Fort Lauderdale.

Atmosphere: Family-friendly.

Essentials: Tacos, burritos, salads, nachos and quesadillas.

More info: zonafresca.com.

These days, some variety of Mexican cuisine — genuine or ersatz — is an accepted part of our culinary repertoire. But unless you grew up in a state bordering Mexico, its availability throughout the country is a recent development.

Mexican food is now a fairly regular dining choice. There is even a scattering of establishments providing a more upscale Mexican dining experience. But for most of us, it’s part of our casual dining thing: lunch, grab-and-go snacking, tacos with friends and family or the annual Cinco de Mayo party.

If you’re new to South Florida, you may have mistaken Zona Fresca for one of the new, heavily advertised, national fresh-Mex clones. But Zona Fresca is about to hit its 15th year in business, and it all started with a single shop in Fort Lauderdale.

According to co-founder and CEO Oscar de Armas, the “fresca” part is the most important thing to know.

“We offer fresh, healthy food and give our customers a real choice,” he said. “We make everything in-house, fresh, every day, including guacamole, salads, salsas, beef, chicken, fish and more. We buy locally and though we pay more for our ingredients, we keep our prices competitive.”

In addition to the usual array of tacos and burritos, Zona Fresca has some unique offerings like nopales (prickly pear cactus) salad and charbroiled — not fried or battered — chile rellenos. They also make a very good pozole and quite delicious flan.

In the early ’90s, when de Armas first landed in South Florida after selling his business in California, he wasn’t quite ready to retire. But he said he was shocked at the dearth of Baja-style Mexican food in this community. He decided to bring to South Florida this lighter, healthier iteration that was so popular in California.

“I was thinking about opening a Baja-style restaurant but had no experience and was wary of going into the restaurant business, with an 80 percent attrition rate,” he said.

Then de Armas ran into a childhood friend, Tim Dobravolskis, who had been a successful restaurateur. The two brainstormed and opened their first Zona Fresca in Fort Lauderdale in 2001, and, with third partner Martin Diaz, a second one in Plantation in 2007.

The restaurants themselves aren’t frilly or fancy, but very clean, open and well lighted, with counter service, self-serve soda fountains, seat-yourself tables and a fresh salsa bar with limes and roasted peppers. The staff is unfailingly friendly and polite; one senses that sulky applicants are promptly shown the door.

De Armas said, without irony, “Customers can have it their way,” and it’s true; diners can modify every dish with a variety of choices — no questions asked.

He said that the salads are favorites among the health-conscious but are often customized upon request to be somewhat less so.

“We’ll add cheese, beans, peppers — whatever they want,” de Armas said. “It’s not everyday Mexican food, but it’s Mexican food you can eat every day.”

Zona Fresca recently opened near the AmericanAirlines Arena, its first Miami restaurant.

“It’s where we want to be,” de Armas said. “That area is growing, and we want to be a part of it.”

Up next: A location in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which will include breakfast burritos on the menu, a Zona Fresca first.

No plans yet to roll out breakfast burritos in other stores, but de Armas said he’s open to the idea.

South Florida Food Chain is an occasional series profiling local chains. Contact Richard Pachter, a Boca Raton-based writer, at rap@richardpachter.com or on Twitter: @rpachter.

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