Review: Papa Johns’ New Bowls, Pouring Toppings, Crustless

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You may have heard it before, but Papa Johns introduced bowls to the menu. The channel calls them — what else? – Papa Bowls, which has an avuncular and passionate tone, as if a beloved grandfather had handpicked every ingredient to nourish your body and soul.

What arrives at your doorstep, packaged in a box within a box, like the junk food equivalent of Russian nesting dolls, is more like a Stoner Bowl. Something a teenager could have whipped up at the prep counter at Papa Johns after a 15-minute Bongkey Kong break in the parking lot.

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It’s hard to overstate the little thought that seems to have gone into Papa Bowls. I mean, apart from the packaging, which consists of a rectangular paper tray lined with a cardboard sleeve slipped into a small pizza box on which is affixed an advertising sheet that trumpets said bowls: “No crusts. Just toppings. The warmth that Papa Johns feels? It’s Greta Thunberg looking for holes in what’s left of the corporate conscience.

All this packaging creates a secondary problem: it creates a kind of tension. He’s a carnival barker promising a werewolf boy, a four-legged woman, chips that can spin a Ferris wheel, a crustless pizza bowl. When you finally peek behind the curtain, all you discover is remorse. For falling for the sleight of hand: a repackaging of available ingredients into something Papa Johns’ marketing team has the nerve to call “innovation.”

I ordered each of the three bowls from the new menu: the trio of Italian meats, the garden vegetables and the Chicken Alfredo, $7.99 each. I was expecting something closer to a casserole dish. What I got were three trays, each with an emaciated layer of prep table ingredients. You can’t even sink the tines of your fork into the bowl without hitting the bottom. It’s like Papa Johns scraping the toppings off a large pizza into a tray, coating it with a three-cheese blend, browning the thing in an oven, and dubbing it a dish.

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The whole idea reminds me of the muffin shop from “Seinfield”. It will be just as viable.

This addition to the menu makes me wonder if Papa Johns even understands what a bowl is, at least as defined by contemporary fast-casual standards. A bowl, the experts will tell you, starts with a base. Rice or greens or noodles or even the shredded cardboard from all those Papa Bowl deliveries. Something. The base of the Papa Bowl is actually the bowl. There’s nothing to dull the spiciness of the pepperoni and sausage in the trio of Italian meats, nothing to dull the banana pepper bite of the garden veggies, nothing to cut the richness of the Chicken Alfredo.

Every bite is a direct, uncut injection of Papa Johns trim, a new extreme sport. Those who consider Papa Johns’ crust a crime against Neapolitan pizza — the base is spongy and sweet — might take comfort in these bowls. Then again, if you hate crust, I doubt you’ll even associate with people who have a Papa Johns app on their phone.

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It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why Papa Johns would ditch the dough for these new dishes. The channel is making a game for the anti-carb crowd or those with gluten intolerance. But they try to do it on the cheap, with products that are already available. Frankly, the company and its customers would have been better off with a nice salad or two as a starter. But that would have required the chain to source new ingredients, train staff, create new systems and put managers at the mercy of the pandemic-era supply chain. Papa Johns clearly didn’t want to go to so much trouble.

So here’s what we get: a pantry dump in many packages.

Lance B. Holton