Fast Food Challenge
A serious restaurant critic takes on Pizza Hut: Does the chain's hyped new menu measure up?
With pizza tastes in America scaling up, Pizza Hut's launched a new menu on with new crust flavors, "skinny" pizzas and premium ingredients. In a press release, Pizza Hut describes these as the biggest change the pizza category has ever seen.
"We know that American tastes and preferences are evolving, and this new menu is designed to completely wow them," says Pizza Hut chef Wiley Bates III.
Ready to be wowed, we visited the Pizza Hut at 1909 Skillman St. in the greater Dallas area, At 6:30 p.m. peak dinner hour, a steady line of people picked up to-go orders; who knew business at the Lakewood Pizza Hut was so good?
Pizza Hut describes these as the biggest change the pizza category has ever seen.
Customers were working-class, male and female, 25 to 45 years old. We felt like we knew everyone, because the monitor over the cash register showed people's names and the status of their orders.
We competed with no one for one of the four tables in the narrow, triangular "dining room," which was painted a garish red. A telephone rang almost constantly, and a buzzer buzzed whenever an order was up. An episode of Shark Tank aired on the wall-mounted flat-screen television.
We wished Pizza Hut served beer.
The glossy paper menu did not delineate new items — Peruvian cherry peppers, fresh spinach, "premium" salami, meatball — from old. Overwhelmed, we ordered two trademarked combos: Skinny with a Kick and Garden Party.
Skinny with a Kick is described thusly: "premium crushed tomato sauce topped with pepperoni, sliced jalapeño peppers, Peruvian cherry peppers, fresh green bell peppers and fresh red onions — flavored up with fiery red pepper on the crust edge."
Garden Party had "premium crushed tomato sauce topped with fresh green bell peppers, fresh red onions, fresh mushrooms, diced roma tomatoes and fresh spinach — flavored up with our Hut Favorite on the crust edge and a balsamic sauce drizzle."
Skinny pies can only be ordered in the large size — no medium or "personal" size. There goes the skinny.
The pizzas took at least 15 minutes to bake. We analyzed the menu more carefully, reading over the combos we did not order: BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, Old-Fashioned Meatbrawl, Giddy-Up Barbeque Chicken, Pretzel Piggy, Skinny Luau and a bunch more.
We attacked the skinny pie first. To get it skinny, Pizza Hut uses less dough and lighter toppings; slices range from 250 to 300 calories each. But skinny pies can only be ordered in the large size — no medium or "personal" size. There goes the skinny.
When we first opened the box, the pizza glistened. At first glance, it seemed oily, but that shine was actually the fresh coat of fiery red pepper flavor they'd lacquered onto the crust. As the pizza cooled, the glaze soaked into the crust, and the sheen dimmed. The glaze is probably corn syrup-based, which would explain the pizza's underlying sweetness.
For Pizza Hut pizza, this was an upgrade. The red pepper glaze on the crust had some noticeable heat that gave the otherwise bland crust some pizzazz. (Good word for a pizza review.) The pepperoni slices were extra-thin, so the edges got nice and crisp.
The thickness of the jalapeño slices was wisely calibrated: Thick enough to convey that they'd come from fresh jalapeño and to impart the right degree of heat. Bell pepper and onion were diced. Peruvian cherry peppers, cut into appealingly rough chunks, were sweet and spicy; their Peruvian provenance was impossible to glean.
The Garden Party pizza looked like it should have been the "skinny" because it was covered with fresh spinach — unprecedented as a Pizza Hut topping. All of the vegetables on this veggie pizza — green bell pepper, red onion, mushroom — were clearly fresh. They were baked with the pizza.
The spinach was tossed on after the pizza came out of the oven, letting it wilt nicely from the residual heat. Balsamic sauce drizzle, sweeter than balsamic vinegar, added a '90s-era gourmet note.
Both pizzas had less gobs of gooey cheese; this was a plus. Although the skinny pizza was said to have had a thinner crust, there wasn't a noticeable difference between the two.
Pizza Hut is owned by Yum! Brands Inc., which also owns Taco Bell and KFC. The company has been busy trying new things, including a banh mi sandwich concept Banh Shop and a Chick Fil-A gambit called Super Chix.
Pizza Hut's crust will never have the flavor or personality of an artisanal pizza or an authentic Neapolitan-style pie, although it did have an artisanal price: For a large and medium pizza, the bill was $30. But for chain pizza, they were pretty good.