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Speed of lite: Fast casual eating options in DFW

What's your favorite healthy fast casual joint?
Posted 8:43am on Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012

Back in the day, oh, right around 1976, Burger King famously told us: "Have it your way." And we did, as long as that meant eating fast food that was fattening, fried and packed with preservatives and glutens. (Hey, it was the '70s. What did we know?)

But three decades and a few million Whoppers later, we started to wonder if perhaps we should start eating a bit healthier.

Traditional, fry-and-die fast-food retailers heard our cries and upped their games, adding salads and less calorie-laden options to their menus.

Simultaneously, a new style of eatery, dubbed "fast-casual" by the restaurant biz, took root in the gulf between sit-down and take-out. From Panera to Pei Wei, they provided an alternative to the greasy white bags of drive-through.

Now, there's another twist on that concept: fast food where healthy items made with fresh ingredients without preservatives and additives aren't just an asterisk or an afterthought, but instead the very reason for being. From Start, a clean-living take-off on the drive-through burger joint that recently threw open its doors on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, to the proliferation of places like My Fit Foods and Zoë's Kitchen, which just opened its 66th location in Flower Mound last week, it's a trend that's filling a niche, especially here in the land of barbecue and Tex-Mex.

This doesn't come as a surprise to Cherryh Butler, an editor at FastCasual.com, an online restaurant-industry magazine. She says it's something happening across the country.

"Definitely, there's an interest in healthy menu options," she says, "from what the New York mayor is proposing [limiting the size of soft drinks], and all the menu labeling, to McDonald's under-400 calories menu."

With the top 150 fast-casual eateries raking in $21.5 billion last year, up 8.4 percent from 2010, according to Nation's Restaurant News, there would seem to be room for a place targeting diners who are both health-conscious and time-conscious.

"The South as a region is known to have the deep fryers and good comfort food, but consumers are becoming more educated about what's good for their bodies," says Kevin Miles, president and chief operating officer at Zoë's Kitchen, which started in Birmingham, Ala. "Texas is a major growth market for us."

So, in the spirit of having it our way, we put down the KFC Double Down for a moment, and hit the streets in search of five places where we can get our health fix on the go.

Zoë's Kitchen: Keeping up with the kebabs

If you want to see where new-school and old-school fast-food collide, head over to University Drive in Fort Worth. Just south of Interstate 30, there's a Zoë's Kitchen cheek-by-jowl with a Smashburger.

Zoë's has its roots in the recipes of Zoë Cassimus, a Greek immigrant in Birmingham, Ala. "She started making Southern-flair food with a little bit of a Greek influence," says Kevin Miles. "She was following the Mediterranean pyramid of grains, nuts and fruits. Everything was fresh. I'd be lying if I said the intent was to be healthy. She was following what she was taught as a child."

Cassimus' son, John, expanded on the concept, with the first Kitchen opening in 1995.

With its light take on Greek and Mediterranean food, Zoë's is not the place to go if you're jonesing for a barbecue, bacon and cheddar burger with a side of fries. But, if you can pull yourself away from the tried-and-true, Zoë's offers some tasty alternatives.

At the top of the list are the salmon kebabs ($11.49), two skewers with chunks of charbroiled salmon and roasted vegetables, served with hummus and Greek salad. Pair them with a cup of chicken and orzo soup ($2.99, $3.99 for a bowl), and it's a filling lunch.

You don't need any soup to go with the garden-fresh orzo tabouli salad ($6.99). With orzo pasta, baby spinach, cucumbers, mixed greens, feta cheese and tomatoes topped with a lemon vinaigrette, it's hefty enough on its own. (Chicken or veggie kebabs can be added for $2.99, shrimp or salmon kebabs for $3.99).

The spinach roll-ups ($7.49, add $1 for chicken) -- spinach, mozzarella, mushrooms, feta cheese, tomatoes and scallions wrapped in a tortilla -- are a bit heavy if you don't want to leave the table with a too-full feeling. But they are one of the best options on the Zoë's menu.

What might not come as a surprise is that the weakest item tried was the one that sounded the healthiest: the Protein Power Plate ($7.99), consisting of grilled chicken (white meat), caramelized onions and unadorned slaw. No doubt, its carb-free mix of protein and veg is a great way to start working on those six-pack abs you've been promising yourself. But the flavorless slaw topped with plain chicken breast might have you rethinking your fitness goal.

(Speaking of which, at zoeskitchen.com, you can call up the gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan or 500-calorie menu; scan the nutrition and allergen information for each item; and decide which meals are right for you before getting to the restaurant.)

Which leads us back to Kevin Miles, who says that even the most dietetically disciplined person can fall off the wagon occasionally, and that's OK. "We have chocolate cake," he says. "It's good for the mind and spirit.... You can still eat chocolate cake. You just have to do it in moderation."

You don't have to tell us twice.

The Yaya's Hand-Made chocolate cake ($2.19 per slice), most definitely not gluten-free, is a chunk of cake with a thin layer of chocolate frosting. It isn't life-changing, but it's a nice reminder that life without dessert is a life of deprivation.

Verdict: Zoë's has taken a mass-market approach to Mediterranean food but kept the cuisine's healthful attributes.

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 1601 S. University Drive, Fort Worth, 817-885-8965, and 9574 Sage Meadow Trail, Fort Worth, 817-750-1055; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily at 6025 Royal Lane, Dallas, 469-341-0123; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily at 5710 W. Lovers Lane, Dallas, 214-357-0100. zoeskitchen.com.

My Fit Foods: Whipping your tastes into shape

Founded in Houston by personal trainer Mario Mendias, who began by preparing meals for his clients, My Fit Foods has expanded to more than 50 locations across Texas, California, Arizona and Idaho.

The idea is a simple one: freshly prepared and refrigerated, prepackaged, high-protein, low-glycemic and mostly gluten-free meals that either can be picked up and reheated at home or eaten on location using one of the available microwave ovens. (The restaurant is also pushing its 21-day diet challenge, but you don't have to sign up for that in order to buy the meals.)

So, My Fit doesn't feel like a fast-food place. No one's going to ask you if you want fries with that. But it is fast, and, depending on what you get, you certainly don't feel like you're sacrificing health or taste for convenience.

The menu is divided into breakfast, lunch and dinner, with small, medium and large portions available for most meals. My favorites are the salmon selections, either the Atlantic baked salmon ($8.50 small, $10 medium, $12.25 large), a filet with a side of quinoa and broccoli, or the pear salmon ($8.50, $10, $12.25), a wedge of fish atop fresh spinach and seasoned with a pear pico de gallo.

Also quite satisfying is the turkey loaf ($6.85, $8.35, $10.35), turkey-breast meatloaf with mashed cinnamon-walnut sweet potatoes and broccoli. The turkey could use a touch more seasoning, but the pairing with the sweet and crunchy sides works well.

Some of the other options are far less successful. Brian's Fit Chicken Enchiladas ($6.85, $8.35, $10.35) sounded wonderful -- corn tortillas filled with chicken breast, black beans, red and yellow bell peppers, onions, tomatillos, tomatoes, and cilantro and topped with cheese and jalapeños -- but were rather dry and tasteless. Even more disappointing was the Fit Mac ($6.85, $8.35, $10.35), theoretically a healthy take on mac-and-cheese. But it was really just a pile of wheat-free, gluten-free pasta shells topped with ground turkey, onions and a hint of cheese. Face it: There are some things that just aren't meant to be healthy, and mac-and-cheese is probably one of them.

The good thing about My Fit is that the menu is large -- though, be warned, if you're vegetarian or vegan, there aren't a lot of options beyond some of the snacks and sides, like Pedro's Black Bean Soup ($3.50) or the Edamame Delight ($4); this place seems to believe in lean animal protein.

Nice touch: Before you even get to the store, you can go online to see the ingredients and nutritional breakdown (calories, fat, sodium, protein, carbs, sugar) for every menu item. There are also reviews and ratings from patrons on each selection.

Verdict: Great for when you want a balanced meal but don't feel like cooking and don't want a frozen dinner. It's especially good for those on specific diets who may be easily tempted by more traditional fast food.

7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. 2600 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake, 817-749-0288; 4015 Lemmon Ave., Dallas, 214-780-0602; 5706 E. Mockingbird Lane, Dallas, 214-515-9113; 2550 Cross Timbers Road, Flower Mound, 972-899-3548. myfitfoods.com.

Green Spot Market and Fuels: Gourmet grub and gas

The concept of getting sophisticated food at a gas station isn't new to DFW. It has already been done at places like Dallas' Fuel City (whose in-house taco shack got Texas Monthly's award for best taco in the Lone Star State back in 2006) or Watauga's Chef Point Cafe (as seen on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives). Now, with Green Spot Market and Fuels near White Rock Lake, you can get food that's tasty and healthy at a gas station.

From the outside, Green Spot doesn't look remarkable: a couple of islands of pumps in front of a convenience store selling drinks, snacks and hot food. Big deal.

But the pumps include biodiesel, the drinks include kombucha, the snacks include rice chips and organic frozen yogurt, and the hot food includes a hamburger made with grass-fed beef on either a whole-wheat, challah or gluten-free bun, and tacos stuffed with smoked chicken, spinach, guacamole and queso blanco.

Toto, we're not in 7-Eleven anymore.

Green Spot was launched four years ago by Dallas lawyer Bruce Bagelman, who needed a new place to get fuel for his biodiesel Volkswagen when the vendor he'd been using stopped selling it. Since then, he has become a leading advocate for biodiesel and last year was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the Texas Bioenergy Policy Council.

All of which is great, but what about the food?

Fortunately, it seems as if Bagelman has put much time into thinking up inventive ways to fill up his customers as well as their cars.

The burger ($5.50; add 50 cents for cheese) consists of a thick, flavorful, juicy patty, while the chicken tacos ($3.50 each) were overflowing with chicken to the point where just one verges on filling you up. The veggie taco ($3.50), a mound of grilled peppers, onions, lime rice, cilantro, black beans and guacamole, was similarly generous. The fish taco ($3.75), filled with mahi-mahi, coleslaw and cilantro, wasn't quite as notable but was still impressive. (The mahi-mahi and veggie taco are part of the lunch-taco menu, served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. There are also breakfast tacos, $2 each, from 6:30 to 11 a.m.)

The fries, shoestring-style, were a little overcooked but decent. Right now, you may be saying to yourself, how can a burger and fries ever be healthy? Perhaps not in the strictest sense, but Green Spot claims that all of its menu items are free of antibiotics, growth hormones and partially hydrogenated oils.

There are plans in the works for another Green Spot somewhere in the Metroplex, although nothing's concrete yet.

Verdict: In the end, what matters most is how the food tastes, and Green Spot's is good enough to convince even the most jaded junk-food junkie.

6:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. 702 N. Buckner Blvd., Dallas, 214-319-7768 . greenspotmarket.com.

B.B.Bop Rice Bowls: East meets West on Upper Greenville

This Korean-inspired eatery, opened five years ago by chef Gregory Bussey (executive chef at Dallas hot spot Victor Tango's) and his Korean-American private-chef wife, Sandra, is in a mini-mall next to one of the best rotisserie chicken joints in Dallas, Cowboy Chicken. And if you're going to attract anyone who might otherwise be lured by the promise of Cowboy's golden bird, you've got to have something pretty good.

B.B. does.

Its slogan is "Eat right. Live well," and you certainly can here. The chefs don't use MSG or preservatives, and the meats are flame-grilled. Their specialty is rice bowls ("bibimbap" in Korean and the inspiration for the place's name), scoops of either white, jasmine or brown rice topped with a customizable blend of proteins (chicken, spicy pork, beef) or meat substitutes (tofu, vegetables), spices and sauces. The carb-phobic can even substitute green-leaf lettuce for rice.

If you're overwhelmed by the rice-bowl choices, there are specific menu items, like the orange-garlic chicken bowl ($6.95-$8.95), chicken-noodle bowl ($7.95-$9.95) and spicy pork bowl ($7.95-$9.95). The pork bowl, served with pickled cabbage, corn and mushrooms, was the best of the bunch. There was plenty of tender meat, and it was enlivened by our choice of sauce: the Chiang Mai Thai sweet chili-lime. (When hipsters started using the word "awesomesauce" for anything cool, they might have been talking about B.B.Bop's sauce bar, which includes such other concoctions as Seoul on Fire spicy red pepper sauce, Ha Noi Nut Vietnamese peanut sauce and Bangkok Curry Thai coconut sauce.)

The two chicken bowls were very satisfying but lacked the piquant kick of the pork. B.B.Bop also offers the Old School Bowl (grilled beef, pickled carrots, sauteed spinach, cabbage and zucchini, $7.95-$9.95), which we didn't try. Both the pork and beef bowls come with the option of an egg on top.

The Asian wings ($6.95) -- six juicy, meaty wings on a bed of rice -- may not be the healthiest option on the menu (no veggies anywhere in sight), but they're certainly good enough to keep you from wandering over to Cowboy Chicken.

B.B.Bop also serves its take on the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich ($4.95) with a choice of meatball, pork, chicken or beef as your filling. Unfortunately, the sandwich wasn't available on our visit. The place has received criticism for being all over the place -- Korean? Vietnamese? Thai? The Asian Chipotle? -- and geared toward American tastes. Maybe, but since my taste buds are pretty darn American, I can't complain too much.

Verdict: Fresh food, quickly delivered. What more can you ask for?

11 a.m.- 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday at 5323 Greenville Ave., Dallas, 214-812-9342; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday at 2460 Lacy Lane, Dallas, Carrollton, 972-620-9700. bbbopricebowls.com.

Start Real Fast Food: Burgers and kombucha

The owners of Start, attorney couple Erin and Mike McKool, reportedly bristle at the notion of calling their fare "health food." After all, they've got ice-cream sandwiches on the menu.

Rather, their motto is "real food fast," meaning none of their items contains antibiotics, hormones, aspartame or corn syrup. The burgers are flat-grilled, not fried, and Start uses organic eggs, milk and butter, plus local honey, mayonnaise made from scratch and whole-wheat flour. And it offers gluten-free and vegetarian options.

The setup certainly feels like a fast-food restaurant. The old Cuckoo's Nest pool-hall/bar space on Upper Greenville has been remodeled into a bright spot with tables taking up most of the room and a counter at one end where eager workers take orders. There's even a drive-through lane.

But on our first visit, it wasn't all that fast. There was about a 15-minute wait between placing the order and digging into the food. Granted, the place was moderately crowded and the whole organic concept means food is going to take longer to prepare, but that doesn't make the wait any more pleasurable. On a second visit, the wait was much shorter.

Of the drinks, the peanut butter-banana smoothie ($4.50) was the clear winner. Creamy and thick without verging on solid, the blend of peanut butter, banana, vanilla yogurt and honey certainly was a promising start. Unfortunately, the thinner and pricier sunrise smoothie ($5) -- oranges, peaches, banana, almonds and coconut water -- tasted mostly like a glass of orange juice.

For $3, you can opt for a very small fresh juice -- orange, carrot and pineapple, and Go-Go (spinach, carrot, apple and ginger) -- or spend $6.50 for a large. Definitely go for the large.

Start also sells a variety of Maine Root cola and root beer ($2.50), Izze sparkling juices ($2.50), kombucha ($5), and coconut water ($4).

The sandwiches and sides were a bit uneven. The Badder Better Burger ($9.50), with grass-fed, free-range beef topped with smoked bacon, white cheddar, avocado, romaine lettuce, tomato, red onion and Dijonnaise, had excellent flavor but was too dry. Asking for extra Dijonnaise might be a smart choice.

Same for the veggie-bean-quinoa burger, though it had buttermilk dressing subbing for the Dijonnaise.

The mahi-mahi wrap ($9.50), which included red cabbage, avocado, tomato, cilantro and cilantro cream sauce, was juicy, however, and quite flavorful. This wrap certainly beats the tartar off the Mickey D's fish sandwich, but I wished it were a bit bigger, especially for the price. (Note: Both the burgers and wraps can be made gluten-free.)

For empanadas, it's all about the crust: the lighter, the better. But the crumbly, heavy, whole-wheat crusts used here can't measure up. The baked-cheese empanada ($3.50, filled with cheddar, goat cheese and cilantro cream sauce) was disappointing, and the baked chicken empanada ($3.50, with cheddar, goat cheese and cilantro cream sauce) was only slightly better.

The sweet potato tots ($2) came to the rescue, though, offering a cool twist on a cafeteria classic. We also enjoyed the superb quinoa salad ($2.50), a tangy, tongue-pleasing blend of quinoa, feta and vinaigrette.

The ice cream sandwich ($3), frozen vanilla yogurt between two oatmeal/chocolate chip cookies, capped off the meal well.

Verdict: If you just want fast and cheap, you'll need to go somewhere else. Service can be slow, and, for fast food, it's a bit pricey. But if you choose wisely -- and want to make your doctor and cardiovascular system happy -- it's a good alternative. There's also a breakfast menu, served until 11 a.m.

7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. 4814 Greenville Ave., Dallas, 214 265-1411. startrestaurant.net.

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