The Fast and the Flavorful: 5 rapid, high-impact office lunch spots

Pizza Karma, Eden Prarie, Pizza

Quick: It’s Wednesday, it’s noon, and your six-person team wants to bounce off campus and grab something inspiring for lunch. Where do you go?

The challenge, of course, is a balancing act. You want food that’s fast enough to accommodate a 30-minute lunch “hour,” but you also want flavors that are big and bold. You want a place that’s accessible enough to unite the team for lunch, but has enough of a personality that you can actually be enthusiastic about what you’re going to eat. “Food is fuel” isn’t enough to maintain morale as you forge your way through the working week.

The opening of Pizza Karma in Eden Prairie is a game-changer for that part of the metro, and it got us thinking: Who else is serving up business-ready lunches that bang out big flavor combined with real speed?

Pizza Karma // Photo by Becca Dilley

Pizza Karma // Photo by Becca Dilley

WHAT: PIZZA KARMA

WHERE: 8451 Joiner Way, Eden Prairie

The unlikely fusion of Italian street food, Indian spice profiles, and bread-making techniques, Pizza Karma is a deft execution of an incredibly clever concept. By using tandoor-cooked naan as the base for pizza-like sauce + cheese + topping creations, Pizza Karma can deliver loads of flavor and comfort to customers in a hurry. (“Hurry” might be an understatement: the two times we’ve dined there, we’ve received our food in less than 5 minutes, a McDonald’s-like pace for real, boldly flavored food.) Pizza Karma founder Raghavan Iyer is renowned as a master of toasting, grinding, and blending spices, and his expertise was evident in everything we tried, from the beet salad to the milk chai tea. (Check out our March print edition for a full-length review of Pizza Karma, a restaurant that we think will be one of the most significant openings of the winter.)

Pho Tom at iPho by Saigon // Photo by Becca Dilley

Pho Tom at iPho by Saigon // Photo by Becca Dilley

WHAT: iPHO BY SAIGON

WHERE: 704 University Ave. W., St. Paul

Easily within striking distance of the state capitol, iPho is an understated wonder. Amid a pack of good-to-excellent Vietnamese pho and banh mi shops on University Avenue, iPho stands out with crisp, cheerful service, big flavors, and blazing speed—big bowls of soup and mounds of rice topped with barbecued pork can land on your table within minutes of your order being taken. It’s an approach that turns tables and makes guests smile, whether the weather is brutally hot (a perfect time for spring rolls and banh mi) or Arctic cold (when pho really comes into its own).

Burgers at Brasa // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Burgers at Brasa // Photo by Daniel Murphy

WHAT: BRASA

WHERE: 600 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 777 Grand Ave., St. Paul

The Yin to the Restaurant Alma’s Yang, Brasa is everything its upscale cousin isn’t: quick, (reasonably) cheap, and casual. What the two restaurants have in common are sterling service cultures and a dedication to making real scratch food from quality ingredients, something that comes through in Brasa’s Southern soul food-meets-Latin favorites approach to dishing up bowls and sides with mountains of flavor and personality. Brasa is also a natural fit for gluten-free diners, as its menu emphasizes rice, slow-cooked meats, and mountains of vegetables.

Afro Asian Chicken Suqaar // Photo via Afro Deli Facebook

Afro Asian Chicken Suqaar // Photo via Afro Deli Facebook

WHAT: AFRO DELI

WHERE: 720 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis; 5 West 7th Place, St. Paul

Equally convenient to University of Minnesota students (on Washington Avenue) or downtown St. Paul office workers (in its West 7th Place location), Afro Deli is designed for the hard-working, fast-moving, flavor-craving modern urbanite. With gyros, wraps, and salads, it’s accessible to all; with suqaar (spiced chicken breast), sambusas, and keke noodles, it’s appealing to foodies, too. Given the metro’s big and growing East African population, look for spots like Afro Deli to become more and more common.

Alambres Hawaiiana at Taqueria Los Ocampos // Photo by Becca Dilley

Alambres Hawaiiana at Taqueria Los Ocampos // Photo by Becca Dilley

WHAT: TAQUERIA LOS OCAMPO

WHERE: 809 and 920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 895 Arcade St., St. Paul

Tacos are a no-brainer for fast, flavorful lunches, but they’re more difficult to do well than it may seem. Many taquerias have great tacos but service and decor that border on the inconsistent and uninspiring at best. Taqueria Los Ocampo is big enough (three locations) to have evolved a reliable fast-casual vibe, but still true enough to its roots to serve legitimately lively and inspiring food. We tend to go for the asada tacos or the huarache, but the whole menu is reasonably strong and inspiring.