Quinoa’s the grain of choice at Protein Bar

Quinoa has made its way into the downtown lunch scene, thanks to the arrival of Protein Bar.

The Chicago-based business opened its first location outside the Windy City in Penn Quarter (398 Seventh St. NW) this fall. Its mission is to offer busy people healthy, flavorful options when grabbing food on the go.

If the length of the fast-moving line during a recent lunch rush is any indication, the trend is catching on quick. Protein Bar proves that healthy food can taste great.

The restaurant’s “bar-rito” layers fillings into a whole-wheat wrap, as opposed to the more common (and more caloric) flour tortilla. Quinoa, a grain-like seed known for its high protein and fiber content, is usually one of those layers. Grilled “bar-ritos” are served warm, while the chilled versions are more like a salad in a wrap.

By using quinoa and moderate amounts of other toppings, like cheese, Protein Bar has cut the calories of most lunch-spot burritos in half (to around 500). Most of the wraps can be made vegan, too.

The BBQ bar-rito combines chicken, quinoa, cheddar cheese, onion, homemade agave barbecue sauce and the bar’s signature Super 6 salad mix (romaine, spinach, purple cabbage, broccoli, carrots and kale). The sauce has a smoky, subtly spicy flavor. The focus, though, is on the crunchy veggies, quinoa and sauce — with just a few chunks of chicken.

In the restaurant’s quinoa bowls, the tiny grains take on spicy flavors of black bean chili or even spinach and pesto. The buffalo bowl mixes chicken with vegan buffalo sauce, carrots, cucumbers and blue cheese. It’s no plate of wings, but all of the flavor is there. The ingredients are diced and cut to precise shape and texture so the bowl in no way tastes mushy. The carrots and cucumbers provided crunch against the soft chicken and cheese chunks. With only 387 calories, it is a surprisingly filling lunch that didn’t require the usual 

3 p.m. snack run.

The staff is eager to answer questions, extremely knowledgeable about the menu and ingredients and refreshingly pleasant no matter how crowded the place might be.

Protein Bar has other locations in the works at 19th and K streets and in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Va. The website is www.theproteinbar.com