Folks, I’m shocked. I’m stunned. Heavyweight Sweetgreen lost in the Elite 8 to bibimbap, a dish adored by all but without an official fast-casual home. Meanwhile, Cava, a fast-casual bowl restaurant that uses the fallen Sweetgreen model for ordering and eating, HAS persevered into the semi-finals, beating out poke bowl chain Pokéworks. Is this what the Creed movies, spin-offs of the Rocky series, are about? No, not really! But let’s take a moment to think about Michael B. Jordan anyway, because after this, it’s gonna get ugly.
Facing off in the Final 4, we have bibimbap going toe-to-toe with Cava and fast-casual titan Chipotle facing off with Panda Express, a Chinese-American fast-food staple. Do NOT reach over the sneeze guard, please. It’s unsanitary and you might lose a hand. Judging today’s matches is one of our most intimidatingly discerning judges, Eater restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan.
Bibimbap (2) vs Cava (3)
There’s no doubt bibimbap is a culinary treasure and represents the best of what bowl eating can be. There’s a symphony of texture: crispy rice on the bottom, soft rice up top; crunchy pickled veg; chewy meat; oozing egg yolk. And it’s flavor-packed, a jumble of savory heat and bright acidity that mingles as you mix it together. Just thinking about it has made me hungry, even though I just ate a slice of pizza reheated the good way (in a pan with tin foil on top).
Meanwhile Cava is standard fast-casual fare, a DIY salad situation that leans heavily on spreads like hummus, harissa, and tzatziki for flavor-building. Its vaguely Middle Eastern, vaguely Mediterranean, and vaguely boring. One colleague described it to me as extremely goop-y, and not in the Gwyneth sense.
But comparing a dish to a specific brand isn’t really fair. Us judges are free to imagine bibimbap the way we like it to be, but it’s as-yet unproved whether a fast-casual or fast-food chain can figure out bibimbap at scale. Will the rice be crispy? What will they do about the runny egg yolks? WILL THERE BE ACTUALLY SPICY KIMCHI AVAILABLE?
A Cava bowl is what it is. It’s real. And real things are both good and bad, unlike whatever idealized version of bibimbap each judge is assuming to be in competition here. Sorry to rain on the parade, friends, but I’m picking Cava because at least we know the specifics. Winner: Cava —HDC
Chipotle (1) vs. Panda Express (6)
There’s a lot more than meets the eye at Panda Express. Even with huge lines I’ve never seen the staff be anything less than chipper, eager to offer a sample of anything you’d like to try. The chain is uniquely expert at frying, which means that, especially during high traffic times, it’s easy to find a pleasing crunch from a hot batch of its famous orange chicken or, my personal favorite, sweet fire chicken (ever-so-slightly spicy, highly citrus-y fried chicken chunks). The options for customization are particularly compelling, especially if you go the route of halving rice with the steamed super greens mix of broccoli, kale, and cabbage. For New Years Eve 2019, I paired Panda Express with Champagne and honestly it was perfect. I should do that again without the holiday excuse.
But here’s the thing: I live in Los Angeles and Panda Express here is a completely different experience than the Panda Express mall-court experiences I had growing up in New Jersey. The East Coast mall-court Pandas are pretty grim. The food sits, it’s too sweet, and even the astoundingly cheap price doesn’t make up for how bad it is. Chipotle is far more consistent nationwide.
Chipotle has always been an easy option because it’s so customizable — even before it released specific bowls designed to be Keto or Whole30, plenty of us had figured out how to make the Chipotle bowl tick whatever restrictive boxes we needed it to. My go-to order has been either salad greens or brown rice with a half-portion of black beans, plus steak, double serving of grilled veggies, fresh tomato salsa, tomato-tomatillo salsa, and guac. Feeling particularly festive? Add an order of chips, throw some on top of the bowl and use the rest to scoop out the contents.
And yet. I didn’t recently wake up to news that Panda Express was massively fined for violating child labor laws. I’ve never had to write blog posts about how Panda Express greenwashed their business model. I don’t have to do nearly as much soul-searching about questions of appropriation at Panda; its founders are not white men who hugely profited off another group’s food culture. And most importantly, I’ve never had to go LITERAL YEARS avoiding Panda Express because of frankly legitimate concerns over foodborne illness.
Plus, have I mentioned how good the sweet fire chicken is? Winner: Panda Express —HDC
Here, going into the finals, is the bracket as it stands:
Come back Friday to find out what bowl restaurant — Cava or Panda Express — is crowned the winner of the Eater Bowl Bowl.
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