Fresh Take on Fast Casual
Dec 02, 2018 12:00AM
● By Brian Saucedo
By James Houck
Photography by Stephen Buchanan
So, this looks pretty cool,” my wife mulled as we strolled into Newk’s Eatery, a first for both of us and our two young children. If first impressions are everything, then so far, so good at this fast-casual restaurant, at which you place orders up front, select your table, and wait (not long) for your meal to arrive.
Newk’s is the brainchild of a Mississippi trio—Don Newcomb, Debra Bryson, and Chris Newcomb—that relied upon the Newcomb family recipe book to develop a menu that reflects simple, wholesome ingredients and lends well to expedient preparation. Their restaurateur experience was built on a delicatessen foundation, which parlayed into Newk’s being founded in 2004. In the time since, the restaurant has been franchised and grown to more than 100 locations in 13 states (concentrated in the Southeastern U.S.). The first Maryland location opened in Gambrills at the Village at Waugh Chapel—it celebrates its five-year anniversary this month. More recently, Newk’s Eatery opened this fall at the Annapolis Towne Centre. Both Anne Arundel County locations are spearheaded by franchisee Tom Saia.
We had the pleasure of giving the Gambrills location a full go—by that I mean, we came in hungry and ordered a gamut of dishes. It was gluttony, and Newk’s satisfied. After parking at the ample adjacent lot and skipping in step to the front door, our family of four was warmly greeted by front-of-house order attendants, which didn’t rush our decision making. We gave the menu—strategically placed poster-size wall hangings—a wide-eyed up and down. There is plenty to peruse. Beyond drink offerings—which include bottled beers, wine, sangria, and all-manner of non-alcoholic respite (soda, tea, milk, juices)—the menu features soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas, sides, a section devoted to mac ’n cheese offerings, and desserts. You know the kitchen’s intent is family-friendly.
After placing our orders and paying up front, we gave the entire restaurant a review, searching for seating to accommodate our large order and two children eager to get into anything and everything they could. A large booth fit the bill perfectly for us. Other patrons can select from free-standing tables, bench seating, and an outdoor patio—options aplenty. The atmosphere felt comfortable and active. Beside the open kitchen—viewable behind glass panes—there’s a condiments bar stocked with pickles, peppers, roasted garlic, cheese, hot sauces, seasonings, and Newk’s signature breadsticks. Between this setup and the nearby drink station, there’s a flurry of diners scuttling about. The brightly painted walls and vivid paintings only added to my sense of newfound alertness—I was ready to eat. We were ready to eat. And eat we did.
Two large salads started us off—the Black & Bleu steak salad and the Ahi tuna salad. Each proved plentiful in portion size and tasted fresh. The Black & Bleu featured—you guessed it—seared strips of thinly sliced steak (from a petite tenderloin, which is actually a shoulder cut) and marbled crumbles of bleu cheese (gorgonzola), both resting atop mixed greens, grape tomatoes, and sliced red onion. This workingman’s salad was drizzled with a bleu cheese dressing and would easily satisfy most appetites as a stand-alone. The Ahi tuna salad employed Asian flavors (notably the ginger-wasabi dressing) to pull together the sesame-coated tuna slices (cooked rare), greens, shredded carrot, sliced radish, and fried wonton strips. The balance of ingredient portions, texture, and taste was satisfying and a reminder that one doesn’t need a heavy hand when pouring dressing—a little can go a long way.
With hearty salads that boasted plenty of protein behind us, were we ready to take on more food? You bet. Onward we feasted, with orders of Five-Cheese Mac' N Cheese, the Debra Pizza, and a Dozen-Shrimp Q Sandwich arriving hot to the touch. We rightly ordered signature dishes from the most compelling listings of the menu.
For the kids, mac ’n cheese was a no-brainer and not a bite was left. Served in a metal gratin baking dish, the bubbling mix of Asiago, Vermont white cheddar, imported Parmesan, and Ammerländer Swiss cheeses was folded into elbow pasta and topped with grated cheddar. Both adults snuck a couple bites of our own—it’s luxuriously creamy texture too tempting to miss.
Meanwhile, the mains for my wife and I were bite-after-bite delicious. It’s no secret that heavy doses of cheese take each dish over the top. For the Debra Pizza—so named as a concoction of Newk’s female co-founder—mozzarella and parmesan cheeses envelope tokens of grilled chicken breast and Roma tomatoes atop pesto sauce and hand-rolled dough. Cooked crisp to the touch with a pillowy interior, the foundation of this pizza was spot on. The ingredients were simple, and they were simply a hit. An overall winner.
The Dozen-Shrimp Q Sandwich was garlicky good with its smattering of grilled shrimp, pickles, slaw, and bacon, all covered in a cheese-cream sauce. This unique and very tasty offering was more po-boy in character than a traditional sandwich (served on Newk’s famous French Parisian bread) and proved just about as messy as you’d expect when eating one. But it was a good messy and, after all, it was gluttony we were after. This sandwich delivered.
A dining experience that felt like we ordered the entire farm (well, we did cover land, sea, and air technically) wouldn’t be complete without a sweet ending, so on to the cakes we moseyed. Newk’s refrigerated case holds the key to your dessert cravings with several varieties of cake to choose from—we opted for slices of Pecan Praline and Red Velvet. Each offered multiple layers of sensual deliciousness, or as my 5-year-old simply exclaimed, “Yummy!”
And with that, our first Newk’s experience was finished, but certainly won’t be our last. Yummy describes everything that touched our tongues, and with the fast-casual formula clicking on all cylinders, Newk’s is primed to satisfy hunger painscountywide.