Gaze around the bleachers at a Plant High School sporting event and you'll see something new. Arms reach into fast-food bags emblazoned with a "PDQ" logo and emerge clutching a grilled chicken sandwich or a handful of fresh cut fries. Watch out, Chick-fil-A and KFC, there's a new poultry prince in town, and he's gunning to be king.
PDQ, a fast-food chain launched by an Outback Steakhouse co-founder at the end of October, opened its first location within sight of the South Tampa high school. And, coincidentally, so did another newcomer, right next door. Athens, Ga.-based Your Pie opened its first Florida franchise on Sept. 12.
While reviewing individual fast-food chain links seems like a fruitless venture (with strict homogeneity a goal, there's not much interesting to discern from location to location), a new chain concept is fair game: What's it like? How does it stack up to the competition?
In the case of PDQ, comparisons to Chick-fil-A are unavoidable. Within a buck of Chick-fil-A's prices, PDQ's menu is about as narrowly focused as they come, like the In-N-Out Burger of chicken. The core is chicken tenders ($3.85 for three, $6.75 for a meal with fries and a drink), real white meat chicken (as opposed to the 38-ingredient chicken paste inside McDonald's regular McNuggets), moist, wholesome-tasting, with a fairly heavy, crunchy batter. (Of their quartet of accompanying dipping sauces, the chipotle barbecue is the most flavorful and appealing.)
These fried tenders come sliced as toppers on the crispy chicken salad ($5.95) — iceberg-heavy mixed greens, cuke, little tomatoes, honey mustard dressing — or as a variation in a crispy chicken sandwich ($3.95) with mayo, iceberg, tomato and pickles. The sandwiches suffer from buns, wheat or "egg," that are too squidgy. I suggest going back to the drawing board on those, but there are a number of things that make PDQ a really promising addition:
• The grilled chicken Caesar is serviceable and standard, but the other grilled chicken salad with candied almonds and Craisins comes with a shocking purple but delicious blueberry ginger vinaigrette (both $5.95).
• Fresh-squeezed lemonade ($1.95) is the best drink, but the mega-space-age Coke product dispenser is really fun to use.
• Milkshakes ($2.95) — chocolate, vanilla, strawberry — are thick (more dessert than beverage) and served in a small enough portion that you won't be queasy by the last pull on the straw.
• Sandwiches come in brown cardboard boxes and fries ($1.75) are packed in little white paper baggies. Very nostalgic. And those fries, with bits of rustic potato skin in evidence, are blanched and fried in a way that renders them tender and greaseless.
• This place is fast. Whether you drive through or walk in, you'll have your bag of goodies in disorientingly few minutes.
• With lots of glass and a stylish design, PDQ has serious curb appeal.
So does Your Pie, a pizzeria built around a lovely central brick oven. The eleventh location for the national fast-casual pizza chain, the concept is customizable individual pizzas, fast. So, imagine if Subway made pizzas. You pick your basic dish: 10-inch pizza, calzone, panini or bread bowl (ill conceived, it's pizza dough formed into a bowl for a salad, which instantly wets the bread and makes it unappetizing). Then you pick your sauce (traditional marinara, pesto, "ranchy marinara," etc.), your cheese (moz, vegan cheese, gorgonzola and so forth) and then your toppings.
It's smart. These days, with dietary restrictions and preference differences, ordering a communal pie can be tricky. At Your Pie, there are gluten-free crusts and whole wheat; tofu as well as pepperoni; spicy Thai toppers and plain-Jane cheese pies. Personal pizzas are cheap ($6.49-$7.99) and they're ready pronto.
The fly in the ointment at Your Pie is the pies are not yet very good. It seems to be a staff-training issue. The young people behind the counter seem inexperienced and confused, re-asking the same questions and fumbling with the toppings. While the price point is good, and unlimited veggie toppings (meats and premium toppings are 50 cents extra each) is nice, the finished pizzas are inexpertly made and pale (our calzone, on the other hand, was too dark).
With some concerted effort, Your Pie (which has a beer and wine license and a lovely gelato bar) could morph into another go-to staple for busy South Tampa families. Fast-food chicken and fast-casual pizza, each with an eye to healthy choices — there's room on the local playing field for these new chain choices.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. She dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.
Note: This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: The new fast-food chain PDQ was launched by Outback Steakhouse co-founder Bob Basham but is not owned by Outback. It was incorrectly identified in a photo caption in Thursday's Weekend section.