The dominant trend in fast-casual dining the last few years can be summed up in one brand name: Chipotle.
Say it and everyone knows what you mean.
In fact, they can probably imagine themselves cueing up at the chrome counter, mixing and matching ingredients (chicken or steak? black beans or pintos?), making their way along the shiny, happy assembly line, and eventually forking over a $10 bill for their very own bowl or burrito.
Forget that behind-the-curtain kitchen mentality you’ve encountered for years at fast-food behemoths like McDonald’s and KFC.
What Chipotle (and its many disciples) have discovered is that if you let us build it, we will come and eat.
Doesn’t matter if it’s burritos or bahn mi sandwiches, personalized pizzas or pitas.
Just in the last couple of years, the Chipotlization of Dallas-Fort Worth has really taken root with the addition of build-your-own-pizza joints like Pie Five, Pizza Snob and Blaze, the salad chain Salata, and others such as Piada, which serves Italian street food.
Chipotle is hardly the first chain to utilize this cafeteria concept (hello, Subway), but it has come to define a style of fast-casual restaurant that just keeps booming.
Two years ago, the business magazine Fast Company credited Chipotle, which got its start in 1993 in Denver, Colo., with beginning the fast-casual food trend and said it had become “the trend-setter in the category.” Chipotle’s rise even inspired a bestseller, The Chipotle Effect.
Of course, that was before the E. coli outbreak at some Chipotle restaurants that stained the chain’s reputation in 2015. (In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the outbreak was over.)
But the revolution that Chipotle popularized is continuing. Yum Brands, the company whose public face is represented by Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC, has launched the Vietnamese-themed Banh Shop, which builds rice bowls, salads and banh mi sandwiches. They have two North Texas locations, one in Dallas and the other at Terminal D at DFW Airport.
Even Chipotle is branching out with its Pizzeria Locale (locations in Colorado, Missouri, Kansas and Ohio) and ShopHouse, a Southeast Asian rice and noodle bowl shop with outlets in California, Illinois, Maryland and Washington, D.C. And in March, Chipotle announced it will introduce a burger chain called Better Burger.
Not all such experiments have been successful. Potato Flats, a baked-potato-with-toppings concept at Dallas’ Trinity Groves development, closed in 2015 after only a year. Currytos, an Indian-Mexican fusion spot that opened in Grapevine in 2014, also didn’t survive.
But not all build-it-yourself eateries are created equal.
So we decided to check out this democratic form of dining, and see if it really is the wave of the future.
Piada Italian Street Food
The story: Located in far north Fort Worth, next to a Starbucks in booming Alliance Town Center, Piada gets its name from the Italian tortilla-like bread that’s cooked on a stone with olive oil and then filled with ingredients. The Columbus, Ohio-based chain was founded in 2010 and is expanding quickly in Texas. Its owners say they were inspired by food carts and corner markets in Rimini, Italy, where they scribbled the idea for the restaurant on a napkin.
The food: The menu has three basic entrees: piadas (think Italian burrito), pasta bowls and tascas (think Italian quesadilla). There is a substantial “build-your-own” section of the menu, and the selections are laid out before you: more than a half-dozen proteins (meatballs and salmon are 99 cents extra), nearly a dozen sauces/dressings, and more than a dozen toppings, from the fairly standard (black olives, shredded mozzarella, mushrooms) to the more adventurous (white beans, grilled artichoke, pancetta, fresh mozzarella — the latter three 99 cents extra apiece).
There are also salads and desserts, as well as some seasonal specials (all on Piada’s user-friendly website, which is not a bad way to order things).
Grade: ☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five). The build-your own pasta bowls ($6.99 small, $8.49 regular) and piadas ($7.99) are inexpensive, tasty and filling options. You can also build your own salad for the same price as the pasta, but we were much more attracted by the Tuscan kale seasonal side ($2.69), which was cheaper and just as satisfying alongside a pasta.
There is a small learning curve to ordering here, but it’s minimal. Our only real complaint was with the cannoli chips ($2.99), which sounded intriguing but were really just a deconstructed cannoli. The constructed version is better. Leave the cannoli … alone.
Verts Mediterranean Grill
The story: This Southlake location chain, founded by a couple of native-European UT grads, still has VertsKebap on its sign, but it’s officially Verts Mediterranean Grill, and signage chain is coming soon. According to the Austin Business Journal, most of its customers already called it “Verts” anyway. But the Southlake location still goes by VertsKebap for now.
The signature menu item is the doner kebap, a fat gyro-style sandwich featuring sliced beef and lamb that, depending on who you ask, originated in Turkey or Germany.
The food: You have a choice of four bases: pita (aka “kebap”), wrap, salad or bowl. Aside from the beef-and-lamb mix (which spins slowly on a vertical rotisserie), proteins include chicken, beef meatballs and falafel.
Then there are 16 topping choices — fairly standard, although spiced chickpeas and sumac-seasoned onions are intriguing options. Sauces include such expected choices such as tzatziki and hummus, but also some fiery options such as hot harissa and spicy cilantro.
A beef-and-lamb pita ($7.95) was generously filled with the mildly seasoned meat, as well as our picks of carrot slaw, cucumbers, tzatziki and spiced chickpeas (which were only mildly spicy; on a second visit, we tried the hot harissa sauce and that more than did the trick). Lots of flavor in a little pocket. The $7.95 included a good order of sweet-potato fries. Regular fries, falafael or chips and hummus are also available as sides.
The grade: ☆☆☆☆ (out of five). Against a lot of odds — it’s right next to a Chipotle in a construction-riddled part of town — this place was three-quarters full when we went there for a recent lunch stop. So the concept appears to be working. It’s working chainwide, too: Twenty additional locations are planned for 2016, including the first out-of-state store.
The story: Opened in Dallas two years ago by Yum Brands, Banh Shop is a calculated attempt to ride the fast-casual wave and capitalize on the fascination with Vietnamese food. And, so far, the only location in the country is right here in North Texas.
The food: Banh mi sandwiches — with a variety of toppings, from grilled steak to grilled tofu — are the dominant item on the menu, which also features noodle and rice bowls, spring rolls, slaw, and breakfast options, like a grilled steak and egg baguette.
The customization options are fairly limited (diners can choose which protein they want on the rice bowls, for example, or add pate or jalapeños to one of the banh mi sandwiches), but the selection of Vietnamese-inspired dishes, prepared in an open-air kitchen visible to most of the dining room, is fairly broad.
The grade: ☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five). You can get it spicy — the Banh Fire bowl ($9.50) features a dollop of fiery jalapeño pesto, tempered with a smear of sour cream — or intoxicatingly rich (the grilled pork belly banh mi, for $7.95, packs a satisfying slab of tender, fat-laced pork belly onto a crusty baguette), but however you sample it, Banh Shop manages to make a somewhat exotic style of food accessible to the fast-casual crowd.
The story: North Texas is inundated with quick-serve pizza chains like Pie Five and Blaze Pizza (basketball superstar LeBron James is a part-owner). But one of the best is the smallest of the bunch: Pizza Snob, with just two locations, in Fort Worth and Denton. Launched in 2014, it takes the build-your-own-pizza concept and gives it more of an artisanal twist.
The food: For $8.49, you get a personal-size pizza and can pick from a range of sauces (including honey barbecue, California plum tomato and buttermilk Alfredo) and cheeses (smoked provolone and mozzarella, goat, cheddar, red pepper asiago, blue cheese). Then top them with up to four proteins and/or veggies. The protein choices include ham, bacon, pepperoni, pulled pork, spicy Italian sausage, salami and garlic-butter meatballs.
The veggies menu offers portobello mushrooms, bell peppers, beer-glazed onions, candied jalapeños, peppadew peppers, potatoes, olives and caramelized pineapple. Throw in two more dollars, and you get all of this on a gluten-free crust.
Pizza Snob also offers signature pizzas like the Street Taco (red pepper asiago, smoked mozzarella and provolone, pulled pork, cheddar cheese, salsa verde, candied jalapeño, cilantro, onion) and fire-roasted veggie (smoked provolone and mozzarella, vinaigrette sauce, roasted bell peppers, red onions, peppadew peppers). Note that some pies may only be available in either the Fort Worth or Denton location.
To go along with that, they have a couple of salads (kale and mixed greens, $2.99-$6.99, depending on size) with homemade dressings as well as cookies from local baker Cookies, Crumbs and Crust. But salads and desserts are not why you come here.
The grade: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five). A recent visit to the Fort Worth location showed why Pizza Snob is a cut above the others in this category. The assembly line moves quickly, and our pizza was ready in five minutes.
The build-your-own with chicken, honey barbecue sauce, smoked provolone and mozzarella, oven-roasted bell peppers, portobello mushrooms, and beer-glazed onions came with big chunks of chicken, a sauce that wasn’t too sweet and a light, buttery crust with a hint of sweetness.
Hoya Korean Kitchen
The story: Open for less than two years in a former Quiznos, Hoya brings a unique flavor to downtown Fort Worth: the spicy tastes of Korea. While it’s not anything like the full-on Korean barbecue experience, Hoya showcases a quick alternative with its hot plates as well as rice and noodle bowls. Another plus: It’s not a chain.
The food: The menu has undergone several changes, and it seems each visit brings new options while old ones — so long, kimchi burger — are gone. Now, it appears they’re sticking with what they do best, like the bibim noodle bowl, where you get your choice of protein (tofu, chicken, beef, shrimp) and five vegetables with an egg on top for $6-$10. You can’t go wrong with the Korean tacos (2 for $5.50), either. You can choose your protein on those, but not the toppings.
The hot plates like the teriyaki or spicy barbecue chicken ($11), pan-seared salmon with teriyaki sauce ($13) and the galbi (beef short rib, $17) come with three sides, rice and miso soup. But beware that an item you become attached to might disappear from the menu one day.
The grade: ☆☆☆ (out of five). Hoya is a solid lunch option — and the line at the counter on a recent afternoon showed that lots of others in the area feel the same way. The food is affordable and fast, and the expansive patio includes a bar if you feel like having a sake bomb for happy hour (4-8 p.m.).
The story: The roots of Mongolian barbecue — where patrons choose their own meats, veggies and seasoning and hand them off to a cook to stir-fry — don’t really stretch back to Genghis Khan but to Taiwan in the mid-20th century. That’s where chefs began serving Japanese teppanyaki, a blend of ingredients cooked on an iron griddle.
But the name “Mongolian barbecue” got attached to it, proving to be a stroke of marketing genius, as it conjures up cinematic images of hungry hordes on horseback (and, indeed, some restaurants perpetuate an origin myth involving warring Mongols frying food on their shields). The idea was exported to the West over the next few decades, with the Dallas-based Genghis Grill chain launching in the late ’90s.
The food: Genghis Grill is different from others in this category because you don’t just choose your ingredients for someone else to put together, you actually do it yourself.
Upon entering Genghis Grill, you’re asked to choose a small, regular or large bowl and starches (steamed rice, fried rice, brown rice, pasta, udon noodles and one nonstarch, cabbage). Then you head to the line with your bowl to pick proteins (various types of chicken or beef, pork, ham, bacon, pepperoni, sausage, crab, white fish, calamari, scallops, shrimp), vegetables/fruits (asparagus, onions, carrots, peppers, pineapples, corn, cilantro, mushrooms and much more), and sauce (roasted garlic, Thai peanut and many others). At the end of the line, you hand the bowl to a cook to stir-fry it.
The grade: ☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five). While it’s not the cheapest fast-casual option out there — small bowls are $9.75, regulars $12 and large $14.75, though prices drop to $8.75, $9.75 and $12.75 for lunch — it offers perhaps the largest range of protein, vegetable and carb options at a chain restaurant and the portions are decent if you pack your bowl with as much as possible. If you don’t skimp, you can get your money’s worth.
Various locations including 4469 Bryant Irvin Road, Fort Worth, 817-737-5800; 6600 North Freeway, No. 144, Fort Worth, 817-306-7560; 3530 N.W. Center Drive, No. 150, Fort Worth, 817-237-2680; 4000 5 Points Blvd., No. 189, Arlington, 817-465-7847; 1101 Melbourne Road, Hurst, 817-284-7999; 13350 Dallas Parkway, No. 150, Dallas, 972-490-0300; 5500 Greenville Ave., Dallas, 214-987-3330; DFW Airport Gate E33, 972-973-6408; www.genghisgrill.com.
The story: Houston-based Salata, which calls itself “the next generation salad bar,” launched a decade ago with the idea of bringing the choose-your-ingredient philosophy to vegetables. By the end of next year, they expect to have around 90 restaurants across the country.
The food: It’s an especially good option for vegetarians and vegans, though meat proteins are available. Diners opt for either a salad ($8 regular, $7 small) or wrap ($7) and choose lettuce (romaine, spring mix, spinach, kale, salata mix), vegetables (tomato, broccoli and mushroom are among nearly 30 choices), fruits (pineapple, strawberries, mandarin orange, apple, grapes, raisins, cranberries), cheese and nuts (feta, mixed cheese, walnuts and almonds among them), dressings (out of 10), and a protein (extra $2-$3). Carnivores can choose from grilled, pesto, spicy chipotle or Asian barbecue chicken, while vegetarians and vegans can add falafel, quinoa or baked tofu. There are also premium proteins (salmon, seafood mix, shrimp) for $3-$4 extra.
If you go for the wrap, you can choose a whole-wheat, Southwestern, cucumber, Thai ginger or Texas barbecue tortilla.
The grade: ☆☆☆☆ (out of five). There’s nothing fancy about Salata and, at least at the one in downtown Fort Worth, it gets jammed at lunch with many who seemed to be pressed for time. But Salata shows that being in a hurry doesn’t mean you have to eat something fried and unhealthy.
520 Commerce St., Fort Worth, 817-885-7720; 2864 W. Berry St., Fort Worth, 682-312-9400; 1241 E. Texas 114, Southlake; 817-442-1500; and other locations in Dallas, Irving, Plano, Addison, Flower Mound, Coppell, Denton and Frisco. www.salata.com.