LADLES AND GENTLEMEALS! BOWLS AND GRILLS! Welcome to the first, and likely last, Eater Bowl Bowl January Madness, where your honored writers and editors are narrowing down some of the most popular food bowls to determine which will be awarded the Bowl Bowl trophy (which, as a fake thing, is worthless and non-transferable).
With the rise of fast casual and Instagram-friendly meals, the bowl, once such a humble dish, is hotter than ever before. Whether you want something healthy for your sad desk salad or something repulsively decadent and full of melted cheese for your hangover cure, you can likely find it served conveniently in a bowl, a vessel found across cuisines and cultures, creeds and communities.
Using a variation of the March Madness NCAA bracket system (“But this is ostensibly tied to the Super Bowl, thus ‘bowl’ word play. Seems poorly thought out,” you say. Shut up! Go read a sports site and leave this to the indoor kids!), dividing our bowls into two conferences, we have Healthy-ish vs. Slop.
On the healthy-ish side...
Sweetgreen (1): With dishes like Guacamole Greens, the Harvest Bowl, and the Kale Caesar salad, Sweetgreen is king of the health-conscious office lunch set.
Bibimbap (2): Controversially, bibimbap is the only non-brand-associated dish on the bracket; though ubiquitous throughout the country, no major chain has risen to claim it as its own (thankfully). Still, its popularity and deliciousness merits inclusion.
Cava (3): Lunch spot Cava can be found in East Coast cities, Southern California, and Texas, where it serves up Mediterranean-inspired grain and veggie bowls topped with various types of hummus, tzatziki, falafel, and proteins.
Chop’t (4): Less bougie than Sweetgreen, Chop’t is the salad chain of the proletariat.
Pokéworks (5): A national chain, Pokéworks serves up cubed raw fish, mostly prepared Hawaiian poke style, with tropical flavors, typically over rice.
Yumm bowl (6): A specialty of Café Yumm in the northwestern corner of the U.S. (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho), the Yumm Bowl features brown rice, salsa, black beans, and “Yumm sauce.” A regional favorite.
Starbucks protein bowl (7): Vaguely similar to the Yumm Bowl, a Starbucks protein bowl also features chicken and quinoa. There are worse airport breakfasts/lunches, I’m sure.
Jamba smoothie bowl (8): Ever wanted a super-sugary smoothie but without the convenience of a cup and straw? Here you go!
Moving on to slop...
Chipotle burrito bowl (1): Customizable with choices like barbacoa, sofritas, pinto or black beans, and guacamole (at extra cost), the Chipotle burrito bowl is a fan favorite.
Noodles & Co. mac and cheese (2): A decadent fast-casual dish, the Noodles & Co. mac is made with elbow macaroni and silky melted cheddar (typically from Wisconsin), then topped off with an unnecessary-but-appreciated extra sprinkle of shredded cheddar.
KFC bowl (3): Made from mashed potatoes, corn, and — obviously — fried chicken, the KFC bowl was among the first bowls to gain national attention (and derision), thanks largely to a comedy set by Patton Oswalt (more on that to come). And yet, it stays standing, which is worth something, though we’re not sure what.
Olive Garden pizza bowl (4): The bowl itself is made from pizza crust and it’s filled with various heart-clogging ingredients like meatballs or chicken alfredo.
Panera Bread’s double bread bowl (5): For when you can’t decide between two soups, but know you want them served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread.
Panda Express (6): The mall food court stalwart has been serving up American-Chinese fast food for decades. Its bowls can include vegetables, chow mein, and rice, with more extravagant proteins like orange chicken or broccoli beef.
Dunkin’ breakfast bowl (7): For when you want something more substantial than a donut, look to the Dunkin’ breakfast bowl, which comes in two variations: the egg white bowl (with spinach, potatoes, and cheddar) or the sausage scramble bowl.
Taco Bell mini skillet bowl (8): Taco Bell’s beloved potatoes with nacho cheese, scrambled eggs, and pico de gallo. Additional calories can be added. **Homer Simpson drool sound**
Taking price, accessibility, customer reviews, and their own experiences into consideration, we have Eater writers Brenna Houck, Caleb Pershan, Jaya Saxena, and Jenny Zhang determining today’s outcomes.
Sweetgreen (1) vs. Jamba bowl (8)
If you are a metropolitan areas with a Sweetgreen, it is the power lunch. It’s got cultural cache (partly because it’s not as ubiquitous as most fast food), and is known for its efforts in sustainability and legitimately treating its workers well. The salad chain serves up the clout-signaling hexagonal bowl — but at a price. You’re likely not going to be getting out of a there for less than $13. But as wellness-y as they are, and as much as its increasingly chaotic ordering system stresses me out every time I go to one, I must admit that it makes a great bowl. Sweetgreen offers basically any flavor profile you want (miso! Za’atar! Cilantro lime!), and its pre-arranged menu items features a variety of textures and flavors that put the restaurant’s food a step above a pile of ingredients chopped into oblivion, though you can absolutely order that too if it’s what you want. The hype and conversation around Sweetgreen can be insufferable, and no it’s not the best bowl of food you’ll get anywhere, but — though it pains me to say it — it’s honestly good.
Jamba Juice was on the cutting edge of wellness culture in the early aughts, bringing the idea of healthy juice and smoothies mainstream (even though its smoothies are mostly sugar since a lot of the bases are straight-up sherbert). Still, the juice train has tried to evolve with the times, adding plant milks and spirulina as ingredients, and of course offering smoothie and acai bowls. Which, let’s be clear, is just a smoothie in a bowl. The shape makes it an easier vessel for granola and fruit toppings, but it’s fruit soup, and according to some reviews, a half-assed fruit soup. It’s a difficult comparison because there are no savory options here; bowl ingredients may include kale, pumpkin seeds and greek yogurt, but they’re all blended with frozen fruit and concentrated juice. Health is a slippery and problematic concept, and some people may honestly prefer a sweet lunch, but by many metrics Jamba’s smoothie bowls are more dessert than square meal. There’s also naming to consider. As much as it’s embarrassing to order Sweetgreen’s “Shroomami” out loud, it is somehow better than asking someone for a “Chunky Strawberry.” Winner: Sweetgreen — JS
Bibimbap (2) vs. Starbucks protein bowl (7)
Starbucks is a chain that is good at engineering sustenance that fits snugly in the “good enough category of food — from egg bites to those butterhorns that are no longer sold but should come back. But how about a bowl? Bowls are trendy so natch’ the Siren had to get a cut of that market. Thus it debuted the chicken quinoa protein bowl two years ago. While admittedly appealing, as some Starbucks employees pointed out on Reddit, it’s essentially just the old Starbucks salad stuffed into a slightly larger, rounder package making it both less efficient and not really a bowl. It would certainly be a decent lunch option in a pinch, though some suggest cutting back on the very salty dressing. Nice try Starbucks, but you can’t trick me into buying this.
Bibimbap, Korea’s gift to the world of bowls, needs no introduction, but it’s getting one anyway. A layer of warm and sometimes crispy rice is served with toppings like kimchi, sprouts, mushrooms, gochujang, and other veggies with meat and an egg (fried or raw). This bowl also comes with its own instruction manual; the word bibimbap literally means “mix rice” in Korean, and that’s exactly what you do before eating this glorious dish. While it hasn’t yet become the breakout star of the fast-casual bowl world, it is widely available at Korean restaurants across the country. A few regional chains such as Bibibop Asian Grill and Bibigo are even trying to go national. The latter seems to be winning over customers with its customizable bowls clocking in between $8 and $11, it’s a filling and flavorful steal. I’m a sucker for an egg-topped rice bowl so obviously this one wins. Starbucks never even stood a chance. Winner: Bibimbap — BH
Cava bowl (3) vs. Yumm bowl (6)
Weighing in at 90 locations on both coasts, Mediterranean chain Cava is a budding force in bowl domination. And in the western corner, Café Yumm! comprises 23 restaurants in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. But bowl size isn’t everything, so let’s consider what lies within. Cava is mostly Greek, with roots at the chain’s original, sit-down restaurant outside Washington DC. Bowl bases here are choices like rice or lentils, with mezze on top like hummus, eggplant ,and red pepper spreads, plus “protein” like falafel, chicken, and roasted veggies. There’s a real flavor profile and sensibility to Cava, even if it’s all a bit simplified to suit a random work lunch. Cafe Yumm, known for its Yumm Bowls, is vegetarian, and guided less by a particular tradition and set of ingredients and flavors than a disposition toward health food. The Original Yumm! Bowl® is basically just (organic) rice and beans, with cheddar, sour cream, avocado, and black olives on top and a beloved “Yumm! Sauce” tying it all together. In 1997, it grew out of a popular dish at Wild Rose Café in Eugene, Oregon but has since franchised, making for more variability and less overall control in its product. Meanwhile, Cava has resisted a franchise model, and runs all its locations for better quality control. While Cafe Yumm remains a beloved regional option, Cava is the winner here, with lots of healthy options including ones for vegetarians. Winner: Cava — CP
Chopt (4) vs. Pokéworks (5)
Chopt, founded in 2001, is one of the early progenitors of the thriving category of food known these days as “bougie desk lunch,” “fast-casual bowl food,” or — at least according to an Eater coworker — different variations on “slop.” Early on, Chopt was a trendsetter, translating the fine-dining shtick of tableside knife work into the more everyday sight of hourly workers on the line using mezzalunas to obliterate white-collar professionals’ $13 salads into shreds. Beyond the thrill of watching the thudding knives at work behind the counter, the chopping produced a perfect heap of evenly distributed ingredients, with each bite perfectly optimized for mindless consumption while staring at a computer screen.
Now fast forward 19 years and the chain is showing its age: its namesake chopping is out, and its offerings just seem a bit … boring? Dependable, sure, but no one is necessarily getting excited about (pre-chopped) salad and bowls with predictable toppings and flavor combinations. There are more interesting choices on the market — for example, poke. A few years into the mainland’s fast-casual raw fish craze, we’ve seen some leveling off with closures, but chains like Pokéworks continue to woo customers with higher-than-average reviews and ratings, Instagrammable looks, and menu items that just seem a little more unique. Pokéworks’ servings aren’t huge, and bowls are more expensive on average compared to Chopt’s, but that’s kind of the point: poke is a little pricier, a touch more special-occasion. For those days when you really need a break from the soul-crushing tedium of your 9-6. Or 9-7. Or 9-Always. Winner: Pokéworks — JZ
Chipotle (1) vs. Taco Bell (8)
Chipotle offers maybe the platonic ideal of a bowl, in that it’s mostly a pile with the barest hint of layers. When it comes to fast food you could absolutely do worse than a bowl of rice and beans topped with veggies, meat, cheese, and four types of salsa (we don’t need to tell you guac is extra). My main association with eating Chipotle is feeling like I’m carrying a sack of potatoes under my shirt for about three hours after I eat. Chipotle dominates for sheer poundage of food available in one serving, the bowl being slightly more akin to a trough. Though it’s around $9 for a basic burrito bowl, you can usually get two meals out of it, making it pretty reasonable price-wise. The biggest argument against it seems to be whether you’d want to support Chipotle in the first place: It doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to things like not giving customers foodborne illness, and it’s under investigation in New York for labor violations. Most of the complaints against it seem to be about things that run rampant across the fast food industry. Speaking of...
Taco Bell wins for the ballsiest marketing for its mini skillet bowl, writing, “There’s no way the inventor of the bowl could have imagined such a use for his creation when he carved the first stone bowl some 10,000,000 years ago.” Which is probably true, as they did not have nacho cheese sauce back then. But the mini breakfast bowl is barely a bowl—it’s more a cup of breakfast chazerai, a serving of spiced, crispy potatoes, pico de gallo, scrambled eggs and nacho cheese sauce no bigger than your palm. In most places it’s only a dollar, and it’s surprisingly filling, though the artificial tang of the cheese sauce starts getting pretty pungent by the end of an already small serving. The biggest hurdle I have is the price. On one hand, it’s a satisfying breakfast available everywhere for literally a dollar, hearty but not so much it’s going to make you want to immediately take a nap. On the other hand, the economics behind the fast food dollar menu belie an ouroboros of low wages and devaluing of food, in which you buy the dollar breakfast because you can’t afford anything else, and Taco Bell sells a dollar breakfast because, like many, they pay employees low wages, and around and around we go. This bowl represents the entirety of the state of fast food and it’s sending me into an existential dilemma about why I even write when I should be inciting a class war. Anyway, the cheese sauce is pretty gross. Winner: Chipotle — JS
Noodles & Co. mac and cheese (2) vs. Dunkin’ bowl (6)
Given that I know how to make good noodles at home, I’ve never had any reason to visit a Noodles & Co. This chain offers a selection of “World Famous Macs” in bowls, all of which I’ve never heard of so obviously this is a lie. I also don’t know who refers to it as the singular “mac” but I don’t care for it. Setting all that aside, with an open mind let’s all acknowledge that this mac looks whack. Plus, there’s an option for zucchini noodles and zoodles have no business pretending to be pasta, let alone macaroni and cheese. And why isn’t the cheese melting properly atop this mac? Everything here is wrong. Please stop the madness. It doesn’t look much better in this video, but this reviewer swears there’s layers of cheese sauce, and for under $7, I’ll admit it’s a pretty good portion size. (Editor’s note: There’s plenty of cheese sauce, and it’s divine.)
A few years back, Dunkin’ dropped the “Donuts” part of its name, presumably in order to start serving the bowls that millennials like me crave. This ushered in the short-lived era of the Dunkin’ breakfast bowl — essentially just a pitiful scramble in a paper cup. Some came with sausage and eggs. Others featured eggs, corn, black beans, rice, cauliflower. Reviews were decidedly mixed and honestly the uniform-looking product didn’t inspire much envy. NJ.com viciously described them as “criminally gross,” and I’d believe it. They don’t appear to be available on the menu anymore, which is probably good for everyone. I guess this means that Noodles & Co. mac wins this round, a result that shocks no one more than I. Then again, who can truly argue with cheese? Winner: Noodles & Co. — BH
KFC bowl (3) vs. Panda Express (6)
KFC’s bowls are indeed famous — or at least infamous — thanks in part to a viral schtick by comedian Patton Oswalt. He derided the dish, basically a kitchen sink approach to the whole KFC menu, as “a failure pile in a sadness bowl.” According to KFC itself, however, Famous Bowls aren’t made with sadness as an ingredient at all. Instead, they contain a foundation of creamy mashed potatoes with sweet corn and fried chicken bites that are topped with gravy and a “perfect” blend of three shredded cheeses.
If you’re playing a numbers game, the KFC Famous Bowl is a sure winner: It’s just $3 for an entire pound of food that provides 710 calories. But, love or hate him on Twitter, Patton Oswalt might have been right about the KFC famous bowl. Ignoring flavor (as the bowls themselves do) they’re a textural nightmare, a horrifying hospital mush of soft and soggy that’s some of the Colonel’s laziest work.
By contrast, unfairly-maligned mall food purveyor Panda Express is not-so-secretly actually good. While the chain of Americanized Chinese food restaurants isn’t necessarily known as a “bowl” place, there’s a solid bowl ordering option popular with Panda heads out there: Choose a base of white or fried rice and steam tray items like its best-in-class orange chicken, and you won’t be as sad that you’re eating at the mall. Compared to the KFC Famous Bowl, a Panda Express bowl offers flavor and texture — a clear win. Winner: Panda Express — CP
Olive Garden’s meatball pizza bowl (4) vs. Panera Bread’s double bread bowl (5)
Of obscenity, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, “I know it when I see it.” Using that threshold test, I, too, know it when I see it, and when faced with Olive Garden’s Meatball Pizza Bowl and Panera Bread’s Double Bread Bowl, oh boy do I see it.
The two bowls, both alike in lack of dignity, are over-the-top versions of the kind of generic, suburban decadence that I expect anytime I go home to the Midwest. The Double Bread Bowl, which Panera offered nationwide for a limited time around Valentine’s Day last year, is the bread bowl’s natural next stage of evolution: a crusty sourdough loaf hollowed out with not one, but two fist-sized holes made to be filled with creamy soups or, in earlier iterations of the dish, macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile, Olive Garden’s Meatball Pizza Bowl — also no longer available today — is a monstrosity of cheese and red sauce and balls of meat layered in a garlic-seasoned vessel.
If we accept that both of these contenders are freaks of nature, then they must be judged according to which excels more at the very quality that sets them apart from conventional foods. One could argue that the Meatball Pizza Bowl, while shameless, is merely a mutation of a pizza: flatten the crust, and a loaded flatbread appears; fold it up, and a calzone is born. There are no such excuses for the Double Bread Bowl’s cursed existence, and even fewer for the dish’s uncanny resemblance to, frankly, boobs. Is it obscene? Yes. Would I still eat it? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Winner: Panera — JZ
Photo credits: Chicken grain bowl: Lauri Patterson/Getty; granola smoothie Bowl: zeljkosantrac/Getty; veggie bowl: vaaseenaa/Getty; salad: Westend61/Getty; bowl icon: Crystal Gorden/the Noun Project