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Two New Ohio City-Based Fast Casual Eateries Offer Bang for the Buck 

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When Fady Chamoun, a Lebanese immigrant, opened the first Aladdin's Eatery in 1994, the concept of falafel was foreign to just about every Cleveland diner save for those who frequented Tommy's on Coventry. These days, it is as commonplace as vegans, vegetarians and fast-casual restaurants. Which brings us to Boaz Cafe.

Set inside the crisp, glassy former Bonbon Cafe spot, which owner Courtney Bonning closed at the tail end of 2016, Boaz takes all the things we love about Aladdin's and repackages it for the Millennial Generation. That means diners get precisely what they want: fresh, healthy, flavorful fare that also is speedy, customizable and affordable.

In typical fast-casual protocol, orders are placed at the counter and paid for. Diners who select items off the menu can take a seat in the dining room and wait for the goods. Those who go the BYO route slide over and communicate their wishes to another staffer, who mans a bright, appealing and meticulously maintained station. For just $6, guests can build a bowl overflowing with greens or lentils topped with beef shawarma or grilled chicken, gilded with hummus or baba, and goosed with any of a dozen different perky toppers, chief among them radishes, pickled turnips and salata, the classic chopped salad of cukes, tomatoes, peppers and herbs. The final step is to add a sauce or dressing like tahini yogurt, hot sauce or that magical Aladdin's garlic sauce.

The menu, while trimmer than that of the full-service Aladdin's, won't disappoint longtime fans. Lentil soup joins stuffed grape leaves, crispy kibbe, fattoush and tabouli in the soup, salad and starter section (all priced $3-$4.50). Most of the rolled pita sandwiches ($5) are present, including those wrapped around falafel, shish tawook and seasoned lamb. And those satisfying hummus plates ($6), creamy hummus topped with shawarma, grilled chicken or falafel, all are on the billing.

Fresh-pressed fruit and vegetable juices and yogurt-enriched smoothies have always been a staple at Aladdin's. They are here too — except they cost roughly half the price. Drinks like the kale-green Mean and Green, which matches the wall color, cost just two bucks a pop.

These days, you can't open a door without bumping into a vegan, and much of the time that door belongs to Boaz. More than half the items served here are labeled "V" or "VG," making this breezy new spot one of the most appreciated destinations in town.

***

Historically, when a new restaurant opens in Ohio City, locals need to dodge the stampede of foodies eager to check it out. Pretty much the opposite has happened at Pizza Whirl, a modest pizza shop that opened quietly two months ago. Much of the blame for the radio silence belongs to the location, which sits at the far north end of the action on West 25th Street. Unless you're going to Tabletop or catching the bus, you will not happen upon it.

When it comes to exceeding a customer's expectations, the bar can't be set much lower than zero, which is precisely where ours were positioned when we finally crossed the threshold. But exceed it they did.

With all the charm of a strip mall Subway, the physical space will never win any design awards. Guests approach a long counter and build their pizza from the bottom up by selecting a dough (proper or gluten-free), sauce and toppings. All pizzas begin with fresh dough, which is hand-stretched to order, placed on a wooden peel, and designed according to the diner's specifications. Sauces go from the white-based ricotta garlic cheese to the crimson-hued roasted red pepper cream, with the fresh, light crushed red tomato squarely in the middle. There are roughly two dozen toppings on hand, including veggies like black olives, roasted red peppers and jalapenos; meats like bacon, meatballs and white meat chicken; and greens like spinach, basil and arugula.

Pies go into the 700-degree pizza oven, which sports a spinning deck (hence the "whirl" moniker), and come out, three minutes later, looking as if they exited the wood-fired oven of a much more illustrious pizzeria. They tasted as good as they looked, sporting a thin, crisp and chewy base dusted in cornmeal. Here's the kicker: pies start at $6.95 for a one-topper. They climb to $10.95 for predesigned pies like arugula bianca, a white pizza with fresh mozz, Italian prosciutto, truffle oil and arugula, which is astutely added post-bake.

If you feel like a salad ($4.95-$7.95), those can be built or ordered as is, just like the pies.

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