Is this America’s best fast-food pizza?

The scene: Blaze isn’t just another pizzeria — according to Business Insider, it is the fastest-growing restaurant chain in U.S. history, thanks to an appealing formula and A-list investors. Launched by the founder of the Wetzel Pretzel chain, early backers included NBA superstar LeBron James, Maria Shriver and Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner. It seems they were onto something — since its debut seven years ago, Blaze has added more than 250 locations in about 40 states, and just expanded into the Middle East. This move is bringing freshly made, fast, customized pizzas that are better than your regular fast food to much of America. The small number of states left off the Blaze map skew towards less populous, such as Maine, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming.

The setup is modeled on made-to-order assembly line eateries like Chipotle, and in fact, many business analysts have called Blaze the “Chipotle of Pizza,” but it is more directly similar to 800 Degrees Pizza (currently rebranding as 800° Woodfired Kitchen Pizza + Rotisserie), a small chain (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Japan, Middle East and coming soon to New York City) that Great American Bites profiled previously.

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The model is simple but elegant and sits between fast food and fast casual. You order at a counter where you select your crust style, then the nascent pizza moves down the line with you, as you select sauces, cheeses, other toppings, and if you want, salad. At the end of the process the pizza goes into a very high temperature oven where it cooks in about three minutes and your name is called to pick it up. There is no table service, but the restaurants have more of a sit-down feel with nicer tables of heavy wood, a spacious café-like atmosphere, homey painted murals, and self-serve stands with condiments and to-go boxes since the one-size-fits-all individual pizzas are a bit much for most customers.

Reason to visit: Mix and match toppings, thick crust option.

The food: The best things about Blaze are the endless variety options, better quality ingredients, made-to-order nature of the pies, and the incredibly friendly and well-trained staff that makes eating here a feel-good experience. The first question the staff asks every visitor is whether you have eaten here before, in order to better explain how it works. The pizza is clearly better than the national chains with which Blaze competes, and despite the red-hot oven, flames and thinner crust, do not mistake this for the now trendy, gourmet, Neapolitan-style, brick-oven pizza experience that has swept the country in recent years. You don’t go to Blaze for great pizza, you go for good pizza that’s better than other fast food options at a fair price.

The main event here is pizza, with nine pre-selected signature options, including Meat Lovers, Veg Out, BBQ Chicken and so on, and any of these can be modified, in fact you are strongly encouraged to do so. Then there are one topping, two topping and the BYO (build your own) options, and one of the very unique things about Blaze is that almost all of the pizzas are one price. With BYO, you can choose as many toppings as you want, really, and there are a staggering array to choose from, many of which are normally considered “premium.” This makes dining here an exercise in restraint or excess depending on your personality, and you could come countless times without repeating the permutations.

The sauce options alone are bewildering, including basic and spicy tomato, white cream, two kinds of pesto, barbecue, olive oil, ranch, Buffalo and balsamic glaze. There are eight cheese choices, 17 veggie toppings and seven proteins. The variety of options includes some really nice and offbeat choices such as turkey meatballs in addition to regular ones, roasted whole garlic cloves and chopped (this is one of my favorite extras, adding a deeper, richer but milder garlic flavor), fresh ovalini mozzarella and the usual shredded, and so on. No other fast-food pizza place is going to serve you fresh mozzarella, goat or gorgonzola cheese, Applewood smoked bacon, artichokes and pesto, all for no extra charge. There is even a gluten-free crust option and vegan “cheese.”

The very thin crust combined with the hot, fast cook gives just a touch of flavorful char (the attention to detail is incredible and there is a person who just inspects the bottom of each pie out of the oven to avoid excess blackening). There is a great freshness to the final result, but the crust itself is a bit bland. In general, I find the toppings superior to the crust, especially standouts like meatballs, banana peppers, roasted garlic and more creative cheeses, though I would stay away from the chicken, cut into a small dice and fairly tasteless.

On my second visit I opt for the thicker “high rise dough” option, which is on the menu but not prominently advertised, and in three trips I only see one other person order it. You can tell, because due to the slightly longer cook time, it is partially cooked on a black metal mesh tray to keep the bottom form burning. While clearly less popular, this is a great secret weapon at Blaze. I prefer the thicker crust, which has a little more substance and a light doughy chewiness reminiscent of hot-from-the-oven roils, without being too thick or overpowering. It is well worth the small surcharge (less than a dollar).

Salads are composed in the same fashion as the pizzas as you walk down the line, and once again you are encouraged to mix, match and even combine dressings and toppings. I wouldn’t go here strictly for the salads, but again, they are fresher and better than you will get at competitors, and nicely loaded with toppings — my Caesar has penalty of cheese and crunchy croutons.

Blaze has fountain soft drinks, as well as some custom lemonades and agua frescas in bubblers, some bottled beer (which may vary by location), and a very limited dessert menu. The one that jumps out for creativity is a s’mores sandwich, which comes pre-stacked with the option of heating up at home, or eating fresh and warm after a quick dip in the pizza oven. It’s a great idea, but unfortunately these look better than they taste, mainly due to an odd choice of swapping the traditional graham crackers for Scottish McVitie’s brand biscuits, a failed upgrade that just doesn’t taste right and ultimately disappoints.

That said, I come away with massive respect for Blaze, and I love the way the place works — the attention to detail throughout, the amazing staff, the toppings, and the best pizza you are going to get five minutes after pulling into a suburban strip mall parking lot in most of the country.

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Is this America’s best fast-food pizza?