In fast food, you have a choice. Often, too many choices. The trend among big-name chains over the past few decades has been diversification, adding new meats (or pseudo-meats) and starches to their repertoires, not to mention the odd attempts to attract healthy eaters. (Not too healthy, apparently, or else they wouldn't eat at fast food joints.)
But look back at the early days of the American fast food industry and you see specialists. Burgers and fries. Fried chicken and mashed potatoes. And now that modern giants have veered toward mega-menus, there's room for fast food and fast-casual specialists to fill specialist niches again.
Two new spots have moved into Tampa, one with a classic formula — BGR The Burger Joint — and one with a newish focus, PDQ, that appeals to my own gastronomical child.
PDQ is all about chicken fingers — white meat chicken cut into discrete strips, breaded and fried and served with sauce on the side. The North Carolina-based chain (soon to expand, but with just two locations currently) also features bigger pieces of chicken for sandwiches — both grilled and fried — as well as a clever grilled turkey sandwich topped with seasoned mayo and cranberry sauce. Want a salad? Sure, as long as it is topped with more chicken.
The main attraction is cut, breaded and fried in-house, but the result isn't as successful as you might hope. The chicken is moist enough, but the breading has some sort of bitter seasoning that overpowers the white meat and tends to infuse your senses for hours to come. The half-dozen sauces, from creamy garlic to chipotle BBQ, help a bit, but the tenders are the least of the offerings at PDQ.
Sandwiches are considerably better here thanks to soft egg rolls and fresh veggies. As a specialist, PDQ has the opportunity to spend a little more time on its menu items, so the fries are cut fresh in-house and fried to order — thin and limp, but they taste great.
PDQ's fresh-squeezed lemonade follows the Chick-Fil-A formula — very tart and very sweet all at once — and the shakes and malts are better than what you'll find at almost any other fast food spot, specialist or no. There's also a North Carolina specialty soda called Cheerwine available by the bottle, an insipid concoction that's an unholy union of cherry flavoring, Dr. Pepper and cough syrup.
The dining room is smartly designed, features a surprisingly large patio area facing Dale Mabry and, despite the problematic tenders, has been packed consistently for the few months since it opened.
BGR is built on a different model. First off, it's a tiny place tucked into a busy strip mall in Carrollwood. Instead of bright colors and flowing décor, it's decked out in 1980s album covers blown up on the walls and printed on the tables, with a few lunchboxes and toys on shelves to punctuate the theme.
The burgers themselves, however, are not built on a 1980s model. Oh, you can get a simple meat on a bun if you'd like, but most of the menu features effusive concoctions loaded with modern ingredients, or constructed on non-standard patties. You want roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions and blue cheese? How about lamb with mint, cumin and feta, or tuna with grilled pineapple? No problem.
All of the burgers are contained by a tender brioche bun, toasted and slathered in enough butter to add a distinct oleo note to the less seasoned burger choices. BGR's basic patties — formed in-house from hormone-free prime beef — are the perfect size and cooked on a grill with enough flare-ups to add a crusty tinge. They know how to cook a burger here, as long as you know how to order it: ask for a temp one less than you want (medium-rare for medium) and they'll likely nail it. It's a good burger.
Start venturing off into the menu's less traditional offerings, however, and you're in potentially dangerous territory. The Greek burger is one of the best, with ground lamb easily able to hold its own against cumin, mint and plenty of garlic, but the turkey burger is an odd eat. It's cooked sous vide (vacuum-sealed and slow) which results in a spongy and pale patty stuffed with too much salt and studded with odd bits of creamy gorgonzola. BGR makes its veggie-burger in-house out of brown rice, black beans and oats, but that dry hockey puck isn't worth ordering even for vegetarians.
And, likely because BGR's burger options are so varied and time-consuming, the rest of the menu kind of takes a back seat. The fries are fine, but shipped in frozen, while the onion rings are doughy and bland.
Both chains have their faults, but PDQ is blessed with being either ahead of a trend or an outlier, with little competition besides old-school fast food. BGR, sadly, is just one of many burger joints that have popped up in recent years, each with its own foibles, each tasty in its own way.
Agree, Saigon Deli, the real one, not the other one across the street.
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