Welcome back to Round Two of our deeply flawed, sports-confused Bowl Bowl, a January Madness bracket in which your illustrious Eater writers and editors compare bowl food, the food of our time, to determine the best through a bracket system, ultimately (on Friday) crowning the first-ever winner of the Eater Bowl Bowl. Read Round 1 here to catch up!
Jamba Juice, Starbucks, Cafe Yumm, Chopt, Taco Bell, Dunkin’, KFC, and Olive Garden all fell to their Round One competitors, leaving today’s Elite Ate — pardon, eight — as such:
Sweetgreen vs. Bibimbap, Cava vs. Pokéworks, Chipotle vs. Noodles & Co., and Panda Express vs. Panera’s double bread bowl.
Determining today’s outcomes are Eater deputy editor Erin DeJesus and special correspondent Meghan McCarron.
Sweetgreen (1) vs Bibimbap (2)
When I hear the phrase “bowl food,” Sweetgreen — specifically, its “Guacamole Greens” bowl with chicken, avocado, and tortilla chips thrown atop fancy greens — is the first brand and first bowl that comes to mind. As an actual foodstuff, it’s more satisfying than you’d expect, a good combination of texture and acid, with that all-important health halo associated with eating a salad for lunch. But perhaps more importantly, in the public imagination, “bowl food” has become nearly synonymous with the idea of the sanctimonious (dare we say “bougie”) desk lunch, of which Sweetgreen is the true pioneer. Bowls as a category of food wouldn’t exist as we know it without this bowl.
So while this top-ranked seed might seem like a no-brainer, we enter bibimbap, which as my colleague Brenna Houck noted in the previous round, has yet to fully take over the fast-casual bowl world, a reality that I take as a personal affront. Sweetgreen’s bowl is the best desk lunch; a bibimbap, even if it’s a slightly less soulful fast-casual version, is the better meal. The rice is slightly crisped if served in a hot bowl (not a reality for chains, I know); kimchi and other pickled accoutrements provide heat and pucker; egg (raw or fried) atop seamlessly mixes in with the rest of the ingredients and does provide a nice visual, great for Instagram if that’s your thing; vegetables and meat round out the experience.
This matchup is one of the head versus the heart, and in this case, matters of the heart win. (Also, I don’t want my Asian Card taken away; it’s very precious to me and my parents would be very upset.) Bibimbap FTW. Winner: Bibimbap —EDJ
Cava (3) vs Pokeworks (5)
Cava is one of three (three!) Mediterranean-ish fast-casual chains within walking distance of my house. (When the rents of a quaint walkable transit-friendly downtown are too much for an independent restaurant to bear, it becomes a quaint, walkable food court. Perfect setting for the new Amazon Studios headquarters.) While I have a slight preference for smaller-scale chain Yalla because it is the closet to my house, I have voluntarily eaten at Cava both here and in other nearby chain-ridden quaint walkable downtowns and not been mad about it. If your idea of healthy bowls involves dumping as many possible random ingredients into your bowl, either for the illusion of choice or so you can restrict your eating in the exact way some orthorexic fitstagrammer has suggested, nowhere offers more interesting and appealing things to dump in your bowl than Cava. I like to dump in lentils and chopped up combos of greens with deeply silly names (SuperGreens) and their compellingly creamy falafel and some of those fancy lamb meatballs and get three different dips because life is short!
I was the lead editor on Eater’s Guide to Hawai‘i, and more or less the first piece I assigned after eating and meeting with writers and chefs across Honolulu for a week was this beautifully blistering ode to Hawai’i poke entitled Mainland Poke Sucks. Nate Chinen, who grew up in Hawai‘i, makes the case better than I ever could here, but I will say that while Pokeworks’ plainest bowls are closer to what you can get in Hawai‘i, the menu easily accelerates into a lot of nonsense, and the menu atomizes out protein and sauce, rather than letting flavors marry. Until someone actually opens a poke place that treats the dish with respect as, as Chinen puts it, “unpretentious soul food in Hawai‘i,” and not as an aspirational health food for lunch legos, I’ll wait until I can go back or make my own. Winner: Cava —MM
Chipotle (1) vs. Noodles & Co. mac & cheese (2)
I love terrible mac and cheese. Give me the mac and cheese from your grocery store deli counter (my true favorite), from KFC, from Boston Market (yes, even with those spiraled noodles that seem wrong somehow). So by extension, Noodles and Company’s Wisconsin-style mac and cheese seems right up my alley, down to the unnecessary sprinkling of shredded cheese on top; love any time cheese is conceptualized as a garnish atop… more cheese. A true power move.
But Chipotle’s burrito bowl is a cultural juggernaut. No other fast-casual restaurant has spawned a phrase like “guac is extra,” which has entered the lexicon and now adorns everything from keychains to t-shirts to enamel pins. (I own one of those three.) Everything we understand a fast-casual restaurant to be stems from Chipotle: the relentless potential for customization, the assembly-line counter where the diner can manage how that unfolds, the ability to walk in at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m. and expect the exact same menu. And if you can ignore the foodborne illness issues that have plagued the chain of late (admittedly, I can’t, so this assessment is based upon the 500 times I’d eaten at Chipotle prior) or the chain’s bad labor practices, the bowls themselves are a satisfying meal. The combination of carnitas, brown rice, black beans, lettuce, tomatillo salsa, sour cream, and cheese has fueled me more times than I can remember.
A Chipotle win here is inevitable. My keychain confirms this to be true. Winner: Chipotle —EDJ
Panda Express (6) vs. Panera bread bowl (5)
There was a time when I appreciated large food companies’ marketing departments having a sense of humor, but that appreciation died with Mr. Peanut. Does anyone want a double Panera bread bowl on Valentine’s Day? Does anyone want it but doesn’t want to tag Panera in the resulting social media post, mistaking promotion for affection on maybe the worst (or best) day of the year to gaze into the dark heart of our mangled, commercialized feelings? I don’t want this bread bowl.
I’ll confess again to a bit of editorial bias; One Day at Panda Express was one of the most delightful stories I’ve worked on, full of funny moments and interesting characters and lunch rush drama. But also? I am never mad to see a Panda Express in a time of need, and by that I mean I recently got stuck at the Phoenix airport for four hours and needed lunch. A bowl of rice and orange chicken has the capacity to make me genuinely happy for a brief moment in my personal worst airport in America, and that’s slop that deserves to advance. Winner: Panda Express —MM
Come back tomorrow as ubiquitous bibimbap battles Mediterranean-bowl chain Cava, and food court favorite (and underdog) Panda Express faces off against fast casual titan Chipotle.
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