Maple Grove Gets Panda Express, Naf Naf Grill, Café Zupas and a Fresh Take on Family Dining

Fresh food choices elevate local family fare.
Café Zupas features soups, sandwiches and salads that are all made from scratch.

Casual family dining in Maple Grove has bumped it up a notch with three new restaurants: Café Zupas, Naf Naf Grill and Panda Express. All three are housed in clean spaces, bright with industrial-style lighting and furnished with functional stainless steel and wood tables and chairs (including high chairs). All three, on recent visits, provided excellent and considerate service. But where each of these new restaurants makes its own statement is in items on the surprisingly diverse menus.

A Zupa New Café

The atmosphere was especially festive at a pre-opening day event at Café Zupas, where the menu of sandwiches, soups and salads is extensive, counter service was quick and tables were cleared by staff. Our large order quickly disappeared, silencing earlier suspicions we’d bring half of it home.

My tender BBQ pulled pork sandwich was topped with crunchy slaw and served on a soft ciabatta roll; my partner’s turkey spinach artichoke panini featured a delicious pesto sauce and was nicely grilled. Zupas California protein Cobb salad boasts protein galore: tender edamame beans and goat cheese in addition to the usual boiled egg, chicken, bacon and more. And while the salad was great, I might, instead, order my own Wisconsin cauliflower soup next time; as it was, I only got a few delicious, cheesy, creamy spoonfuls from my dining partner’s bowl. Honey lemonade and fresh basil-cucumber iced tea lured us away from standard fountain drinks and did not disappoint. And the desserts (in addition, I must confess, to the chocolate-covered strawberry complimentary to every meal) were fantastic: a rocky road brownie for me; a chocolate hazelnut crème brulee for my partner.

What makes Café Zupas unique, says vice president of marketing Gheen Hillman, “is that we make everything in-house. ‘House made’,” he continues, “means every salad dressing, sandwich spread, and soup selection is made from scratch.” In addition, food is sourced from local suppliers as much as possible. “We strive to offer a nutritious menu that our guests can feel good about eating frequently,” he says.

While the two meals were complimentary during the opening celebration, we estimate that (without dessert, for better comparability) the cost would have been about $21. A kid’s meal combo is available for $3.99.

Feel “The Naf Love”

Naf Naf Grill (the name means “to fan the flame”) in Maple Grove is the chain’s third location in Minnesota. “A meal here may be some Minnesota diners’ first experience with the Middle Eastern fast food concept,” says regional manager Tomer Gal. Menu items include beef and chicken shawarma (roasted meat cooked on a revolving spit) and falafel; each can be served in a pita or in a rice, salad or hummus bowl. While Gal says the chicken shawarma rice bowl is probably the most popular item, my dining partner enjoyed the flavorful beef shawarma in a warm and airy pita, accompanied by his choices of purple cabbage, onions, cucumber-tomato salad and pickles; there are also sauce choices including tahini and a hot sauce, among others. I was very lucky he chose to share with me his Naf fries, warm and crisp and salty and more like fresh-fried, thick-cut potato chips than standard fries. My order was the vegan falafel hummus bowl, a big scoop of creamy hummus topped by four nicely browned falafel balls and all the salad/sauce choices above. A fresh pita accompanied the hummus bowl. I also enjoyed the vegan lentil soup.

Gal says that everything is made in-house, including those addictive pitas. He refers to “The Naf Love” not only as the care Naf Naf Grill employees put into food preparation but how they treat each other and customers; he’s proud to point out that 92 percent of Naf Naf Grill managers start out as hourly crew. Speaking of hourly crew and Naf love, the counter person who waited on us allowed my dining partner a more expensive beverage at the “combo meal” price, and checked up on our satisfaction with the meal a few minutes later.

Our bill for two hearty meals, Naf fries, lentil soup and two beverages came to just under $23.

Family-Friendly Favorite

Of the newcomers, diners are probably most familiar with Panda Express. Store manager Matthew Hawley says orange chicken and honey walnut shrimp are Panda Express’s signature dishes. My dining partner and I tasted both crunchy and sweet, and while the orange chicken is flagged “spicy” it was not overwhelmingly so. We also tried the broccoli beef (good ratio of meat to broccoli) and Shanghai Angus steak, a very tender beef dish served with savory mushrooms, asparagus and onions. Consider ordering mixed vegetables as a side instead of fried rice or noodles: mine were perfectly stir-fried and featured lightly seasoned broccoli, string beans, zucchini and cabbage.

All ingredients are freshly prepared, onsite, every day. There is no added MSG in any of the food and calorie counts for all dishes are clearly displayed. Health-minded “Wok-Smart” selections are 300 calories or less and have at least eight grams of protein. At Panda Express, “everyone is welcome to sample anything before they order,” Hawley says.

A kid’s meal (junior entrée, junior side, 12-ounce drink and a cookie) is $5. We had two entrees each, plus sides, an egg roll and beverages, for just over $23.

Here to Stay

As to why each of these new restaurants has located in Maple Grove, Panda Express store manager Hawley says he is grateful for a booming community and a location adjacent to Total Wine and More. Café Zupa’s Hiilman loves Maple Grove’s mix of office and residential customers. Gal of the Naf Naf Grill puts it this way: “We’re happy to be in a city consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the country.”

Further endearing themselves to their new community, each of these chains supports community fundraising programs. Café Zupas’s “School Night” returns up to 25 percent of proceeds from every Tuesday night, 5-9 p.m., to schools and other programs, explains Jessica Caldiero, community relations manager. At Panda Express, organizations can earn 20 percent of all sales. Check the restaurant websites for more information. And, if it’s Naf Naf Grill where you want to schedule a fundraiser, Gal says, “People who are interested in fundraisers can contact our company through our website.”