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Parsippany's Muscle Maker Grill Goes for the Burn

New Jersey chain serves up healthy "fast food" in Parsippany

Be honest with yourself. After an ambitious workout, you’re probably hungry but don’t want to interruTWell we’ve found the solution: Muscle Maker Grill, a black, red and chrome “fast food” restaurant that definitely has more going on than you might anticipate.

Muscle Maker Grill started in Colonia when founder Rod Silva opened a protein smoothie store that eventually included meals in the mix. Less than 20 years later, Muscle Maker Grill has over 100 outlets in New Jersey, New York, Florida, California and Pennsylvania.

The definition of fast food here is decidedly different from the norm. “Fast” refers to the amount of time that’s needed to take your order and then deliver it. Once you place the order, you can grab a seat and wait to be served, a different concept for a fast-food emporium.

But the point is not to give you some quick and greasy carbo-loaded meal; it’s to help give you healthy choices that offer enough protein and colorful vegetables to make your food look and taste appealing. Wraps, sandwiches, salads and whole wheat pasta dishes are the main delivery methods. There’s no deep fryer here--stocks are made with vegetables, and no trans fats are used.

Unlike a lot of restaurants that post calorie counts reluctantly if at all, Muscle Maker is proud of showing off the calorie information for its offerings. You can have a bowl of the soup of the day for as little as 120 calories. Th eeatery's signature wrap with grilled chicken breast, turkey bacon and reduced-fat cheddar cheese ($8.25) has only 450 calories. Or try the Tex-Mex fajita wrap (also $8.25), which has only 535 calories.

The healthy-minded restaurant makes its food better for the body by incorporating sauces and seasonings into the dishes and by putting the emphasis on adding flavor-packed but good-for-you items such as tomatoes, peppers, low-carb Caesar dressing and reduced-fat cheeses.

That's right, cheese: But don’t expect dishes slathered in melted cheese like the standard Tex-Mex places. Only low-fat varieties are used, and it is grated and served sparingly. The bacon and meatballs you'll see on the menu are made from turkey. Mixed with brown rice and beans or “Western” potatoes flavored with peppers, onions and hot sauce, you get a surprisingly authentic product. There are a number of gluten-free options as well.

The menu focuses on Italian and Tex-Mex dishes with the occasional Asian option as well. This is nothing that you couldn’t make at home for yourself if you were so inclined and had the time, but as a lunchtime option or a quick dinner fix, it does the trick. A large portion of the dishes are composed of white meat chicken or turkey with the occasional option of fresh fish or shrimp, steak or pasta.

Muscle Maker Grill is a franchise operation, so there is a “routine” that must be followed. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the menu, because otherwise you'll have to juggle the type of food you want, the amount of calories you’re comfortable consuming and how much it costs all while trying to place your order, pay and move out of the way.

Here are the categories: Warm-ups; Fit Salads; Muscle Maker Wraps; Signature Sandwiches; Guiltless Entrees; Power Pasta and Low-Carb Solution. Big protein shakes, Slim-Pickins Muffins sweetened with stevia and non-fat yogurt round out the options.

There are plenty of substitutions available so if you’re in the mood for shrimp or fresh fish, for example, you can try them in your “power pasta,” a 100 percent whole wheat offering. If that doesn’t float your boat, you might want to go after the steak option.

The décor is spare with laminate tables and comfortable vinyl chairs. Most surprising is the fact that dishes are served on heavy duty triangular shaped plastic plates which hold up to the chopped veggies and seasonings that give the entrees their flavor. Side dishes are offered in small cup-like vessels. It’s a civilizing addition which avoids the use of waste producing paper and Styrofoam plates.

The are about a dozen side dish options, including baked potato, brown rice, broccoli, “western” potatoes, Caesar salad and fat-free balsamic potato salad. Extra sauce, reduced-fat cheddar cheese and fat-free sour cream can be added for 75 cents each and some other sides carry a $1 tariff.

The theme here is obvious. The hefty display of fat-burning powders and supplements for sale make it plain, as do the focused all-male staffers who walk around in black and red “muscle” shirts that display their bulging biceps. Hey, whatever works to push the concept that this place is looking out for your own good.

Muscle Maker Grill 1125 Route 46 East in Troy Hills Plaza, 973-402-1000. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Major credit cards accepted.

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