A fast-casual salad showdown in Pittsburgh for the season of resolutions

Here we are in New Year’s resolution season — which makes three fast-casual salad spots in the Pittsburgh area popular go-to destinations: Hello Bistro, Honeygrow and Earth Inspired Salads.

Wondering how they stack up? Here’s a look:

Hello Bistro is the most skittish about embracing healthy options

Hello Bistro, the homegrown-brand from Eat ’n Park Hospitality Group, opened its first location in Oakland in 2014 and its second on the South Side in the summer of 2015. Today there are six shops in the region.

Hello Bistro is the most conservative of the trio and offers the biggest salad portions as well as menu details like the pronunciation of “quinoa” on the quinoavocado mash-up. Most significant, the place serves burgers, which is emphasized in the tagline: “Salads. Burgers. Together.” They range from the mushroom and onion Jack burger that’s 754 calories to Dad’s pot roast melt, that’s more than 1,000 calories. Plus, at $5 to $6.75 for burgers and $4.50 to $6 for sandwiches, they’re cheaper than the salads.

To make a customized salad, I could choose from among 55 toppings. There are also a variety of signature salads, all of which cost between $7 and $9.75. Calories range from 274 for the Apple Almond Crunch to 538 for Buffalo Chicken salad. I ordered one of the best-sellers, the Chicken Fiesta, a 413-calorie bowl of mixed greens with corn and black beans, red onion, roasted peppers, jalapeno, avocado, tortilla strips and “fiesta-seasoned chicken,” with a citrus-lime vinaigrette.

With a bowl packed super full and the greens under-salted, there were a lot of ingredients, but it wasn’t especially satisfying. I understand the appeal of allowing customers to see their salads being made. But part of me wishes they were assembled behind closed doors so cooks could taste as they’d go — and have a sense of what the salad needs to enhance the flavor. (292 Forbes Ave., Downtown; 3605 Forbes Ave.,Oakland; and others)

Honeygrow is working out the kinks

East Liberty’s Honeygrow is the newest fast-casual salad spot in the region. This emerging chain was founded in Philadelphia by Justin Rosenberg in 2012, with a menu of stir-fries, salads, cold-pressed juices and a honey bar with a honey selection that’s drizzled on a fruit snack.

Honeygrow is in the middle of a growth spurt with 25 locations — that’s five more shops that have opened since Pittsburgh got its restaurant in September. There’s also a spin-off, Minigrow, a smaller, faster version of the flagship that debuted in New York and is set to expand.

Honeygrow is the most high-tech and progressive of the restaurant trio with touch-screen ordering and an order-ahead app. Chopsticks are stocked next to forks and knives.

A recent blustery day did not deter a weekday lunchtime crowd. That’s fortunate given some early challenges: a weather-related water company shut-off in the neighborhood in December and flooding that occurred in the restaurant in early January after a pipe burst.

On my visit, the touch screen system was having some glitches. The employees were super helpful and sympathetic, but I missed the back-and-forth banter. With customers waiting behind me in line, the conversation was dominated by the tech issues rather than the most popular orders or what they liked best. 

The working touch screen listed a 570-calorie menu of Winter Kale salad with mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, pear, blue cheese and pecans, which I ordered. It cost $9.29. There also were a 570-calorie Make It Grain bowl for $8.29, and a 820-calorie Cobb salad for $10.99, along with the create-your-own bowl of dressed greens, three toppings and crunch for $6.99. Herbed focaccia is an extra 50 cents.

My salad was served in a biodegradable bowl that features a wide mouth to display more ingredients, many of which remained at the top. Though the salad was satisfying, I wished I had ordered noodles instead: Such is the case with eating-your-vegetables after the holidays outside of the Northeast growing season. I liked it better than the most popular salad at Hello Bistro, but that’s as much about my preference for darker greens. (105 S. Highland Ave. East Liberty)

Earth Inspired Salads in the Alcoa Building has it down

Last up is Earth Inspired Salads with two Downtown locations, offering more than 25 fruit, vegetable, protein, cheese and crunch add-ins for make-your-own options that are $7.50 for four ingredients. There’s one location just off Market Square at 218 Fifth Ave., in the spot where Valozzi folks originally opened Toss’t in 2013. The other spot at 611 William Penn Place in the Alcoa Building also offers signature salads, grain bowls and sandwiches.

I ordered the Winter Solstice salad for $11.50 at the Alcoa spot. This included mixed greens with mandarin slices, chicken, wild rice and curried cauliflower. It was one of several salads that range from 430 to 600 calories, with a Caesar called Et Tu, Brute for $8.50 and another with a name that doesn’t quite resonate, the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Chicken for $8.50.

The space in the Alcoa building was my favorite of the three restaurants, not only because I love the building but the lowered lighting made the place seem less cold and stark than the other spots. Although the salad ingredients settled down to bottom of the bowl because it’s more vertical than the others, I liked the combination of ingredients, that they were well-seasoned (ie, salted) and that the bowl was not overstuffed with too many plain greens and not enough extras. 

Which restaurants make the best salads? A visit per restaurant can’t determine a winner. But with the season for resolutions having just begun, there’s plenty of time to make our way through the menus to decide. 

Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com, Instagram @postgazettefood, Facebook @postgazettefood


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