By Pam George

Many Papa John’s customers scratched their heads in confusion when the fast-food chain debuted Papa Bowls — essentially pizzas without the crust. Although curious, the additions demonstrate the trendiest item on today’s menu: the bowl. They can be sweet or savory, and, when well done, they are a culinary collision of complimentary flavors. 

“They’re a complete meal — you have your veggies, starch, protein and sauce,” says Matthew Hans, director of operations for Pizzeria Maki in Greenville, which added four bowls this summer. 

One would argue that Papa Bowls don’t meet the criteria. That said, bowls are also vessels for creativity. “Bowls are a great place to mash up flavors,” Hans agrees.

They can be sweet or savory; while some are healthy, others can wreak havoc on a diet. But one thing is for sure — bowls are a hot commodity.

A Common Denominator

One-pot meals aren’t new. Before manufacturers developed affordable chinaware, people of modest means sipped soups, stews and porridges from wooden bowls. And even after plates — known initially as “flatware” — became plentiful, many cultures preferred to combine multiple ingredients in a vessel. 

Take, for instance, Asian cuisine, which typically includes rice or noodles, protein, vegetables and sauce — all the elements of a successful bowl. Ramen, pho and poke — Hawaii’s version of sushi — are examples.

El Diablo has offered bowls since the first store opened in 2010. Their chicken bowl is the most popular.

It was a familiar approach to Wit Milburn, who is part Thai, and his wife, Jody, who is Korean. They noted the public’s passion for bowls while visiting California in 2013. 

“Everybody was making rice bowls out there,” recalls Milburn, who was doing research for a food truck.

Today Kapow — the Milburns’ truck and restaurant — is known for Huli Huli bowls: Hawaiian-style chicken teriyaki with pineapple over rice with cilantro, scallions and sesame seeds. In an homage to Jody’s roots, Kapow also tops rice or noodles with Korean-style barbecued steak, kimchi, scallions and sesame seeds.

Milburn’s family also owns Ubon Thai Kitchen & Bar on the Wilmington Riverfront, and a curry bowl comes with brown or white rice. It’s only available at lunch because many diners like to pass Thai cuisine around the table, he explains.

Global Fusion

Bowls are easy to assemble, transport and eat, which has made them the darling of the quick-casual and casual sectors, especially those specializing in ethnic cuisine. For instance, Teriyaki Madness, a chain with a Brandywine Hundred location, has the cheek to pat itself on the back for take-home bowls that customers can reuse. 

The concept also lends itself to Mediterranean flavors. Cava, a chain near Christiana Mall, encourages customers to top the base with up to three dips and spreads, including hummus and roasted eggplant. A falafel or grilled chicken is among the protein choices, and kalamata olives, crumbled feta and tabbouleh are on the toppings list.

Meanwhile, El Diablo has offered bowls since the first store opened in 2010, says founder Dean Vilone. “When people ask me, ‘What’s your most popular burrito?’ I say, ‘A chicken bowl.’ It’s by far and away our bestseller,” he says.

An artful and colorful presentation of a bowl with sushi at Pizzeria Maki. Photo by Matthew Hans

To be sure, anything that goes into a burrito — rice, beans, meat, lettuce and sauces — can go in a bowl without mucking up the flow. But El Diablo will happily cross borders. Available ingredients include mahi, braised short rib, goat cheese, feta, kalamata olives and pineapple-habanero salsa. 

Pizzeria Maki also beats to its own bowl. The Fiery Fish, for instance, includes greens, rice, cucumber, jalapenos, Korean chili flakes, chili pineapple and a yuzu-Caesar dressing. Toppings range from salmon to octopus to roasted mushrooms.

The artful presentation is reminiscent of the ubiquitous poke, the poster child for the bowl obsession. Also known as deconstructed sushi, it is the Hawaiian item that has launched a bevy of Poke Bros. locations. 

Have It Your Way

Poke Bros., which has a North Wilmington store, built a business on giving customers a choice, a strategy pioneered by Subway, underscored by Moe’s, and picked up by local restaurants, including El Diablo.

For many, it’s all about the base. At Poke Bros., customers choose white or brown rice or sushi rice. Cava’s grains include saffron basmati rice, brown basmati, black lentils or the plant-based RightRice, made with lentils, chickpeas and peas. Milburn’s bowls come with rice or noodles. 

But with the advent of paleo and keto, the base has gone green. “We have cabbage and lettuce bowls for people who don’t want carbs,” Milburn says. Establishments are also adding kale and spinach. Admittedly, the greens blur the line between salad and bowl. In fact, Savanna Salad Bowls & Sandwiches on Wilmington’s Riverfront has a menu section for salad bowls and ones with grains, as does Roots Natural Kitchen, which has a Newark location.

“The grain bowl has the primary ingredient of rice or bulgar, and the salads have the main ingredient of one of three different lettuce options,” explains Roots spokesperson Larissa Caballero. 

The most popular grain bowl, El Jefe, consists of brown rice, kale, charred corn, black beans, onions, avocado, feta, pita chips and cilantro-lime dressing with chipotle-style chicken. Tofu, particularly barbecued tofu, is a popular substitute for chicken.

Counting Calories

Replacing grains with greens boosts the perceived tie between bowls and a healthy lifestyle. However, depending on your diet, grains are a plus. For example, Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Trolley Square sells a quinoa turkey bowl with crunchy cauliflower, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, red onions, tart dried cherries, avocado, arugula, honey-goat cheese and orange-Dijon vinaigrette.

Pesto Caesar bowl by Roots.

Those who like to eat “clean” order the vegetarian Buddha Bowl, available at Green Box Kitchen in Wilmington. Green Box encourages customers to create a Buddha Bowl with such choices as quinoa, black beans, roasted chickpeas and za’atar vinaigrette. 

Then there is acai, the superfruit that has helped nudge smoothies out of the breakfast limelight. The berry, which comes from the acai palm in Amazonia, has dark purple skin that gives the bowl a vibrant hue. As for the flavor, it’s a surprising cross of dark chocolate and blueberries.

Green Box Kitchen and the Juice Joint on the Riverfront sell bowls with acai. But it’s a tricky ingredient with a short shelf life. The benefits can also be questionable. Some distributors cut acai with other ingredients or add sugar to frozen acai puree, powder or pressed juice to sweeten it. The controversy prompted Playa Bowls, which has three Delaware locations, to announce on its website that the brand imports acai from Brazil to New Jersey and stores it for 21 days or less.

Because of acai’s fragility — and price — you’ll also see bowls made with pitaya. Known as dragon fruit, it comes from cactuses native to Central and South America, Malaysia and Vietnam, and it’s also packed with antioxidants. 

Playa Bowls sells both, and toppings might include bananas, granola, peanut butter oatmeal and chia pudding. The calorie count can get so complex that the chain offers nutritional information for each ingredient. Suffice it to say that the bowls might not be as healthy as you think.

Bowled Over?

Now that Papa John’s has jumped on the bowl wagon with Chipotle, Olive Garden, Panera, P.F. Chang’s, Starbucks and Taco Bell, one wonders if the bowl craze has peaked. But, says Milburn, “They’re not going away anytime soon.”

Indeed, Vilone of El Diablo and his partner are toying with a new concept that will have bowls. (He’s not ready to divulge any details.) At the beach, high-end restaurants are serving bowls and poke. Credit the dish’s versatility and the consumers’ increasing dietary demands. Don’t eat meat? Give them a Buddha Bowl. Going low-carb? Pile veggies and raw tuna on bulgur. 

“We believe people should feel good about what they’re eating and that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice on taste when looking for a good option to fit any variety of lifestyle,” says Caballero of Roots. 

For the modern-day Goldilocks, a bowl is just right. 

More in:Food & Drink