Photo by Anne Fishbein
Once, not so long ago really, we were in touch with our food. French peasants slow-cooked wild fowl and root vegetables in sturdy vessels. Women and children in fishing villages along the West African coast gathered to transform the day’s catch into peppery seafood stews. In the Philippines, it was once standard practice to keep a vat of arrozcaldo, chicken-and-rice porridge, warming on the stove all day — a stack of small bowls always nearby — ready to share at a moment’s notice with friends and family who drop by unexp ectedly.
The five-minute chicken bowl assembled on the line is a far cry from an hours-simmered coq au vin. But it’s also true that the basics remain unchanged. We’re still taking our meals from the big vat to the small receptacle. We’re still, if the Web sites and the research hold true, getting most of our nutrition from a single dish. Our Styrofoam and plastic fast-food bowls are still essentially the same shape and construction as the hollowed-out halves of coconut shells or gourds that served as our ancestors’ bowls.
The bowl we know is the bowl we love. Like incoming blips on a radar screen, fast-food bowls have invaded the collective consciousness. Bright and shiny Panda Expresses, Koo Koo Roos and Hana Grills line our food courts, tempting us with a teriyaki bowl here, a curry bowl there. Marie Callender’s and Uncle Ben’s microwaveabowls lurk in our freezers. Where traditional one-pot meals were typically workhorse, family-feeding affairs, these modern plastic-encased, Styrofoam-padded baby bowls are fleet-footed solo gigs designed for the single eater on a one-hour lunch break. Only a fork required.
We value speed, cleanliness, consistency. Upon sampling the local food-court fare, repeat after me the mantra “It doesn’t have to be good — . it just has to be good enough.” And you gotta ask why a species so diverse in needs and tastes would choose to churn out and consume the same food over and over again. To appreciate fast-food bowl cuisine, however, is to revel in certainty and minute differences. It is to take the road well traveled, to buckle your seat belt and then check it. Twice. Of the fast-food bowls reviewed herein, most have Web sites to identify fat content, calorie count, amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fiber. Ingredients are labeled, accounted for. The bowl itself may be a snuggly little thing that fits in the palm of your hand, but nowadays, even the humblest franchise bowl is supported by intimidating amounts of R&D. We learn to distinguish the subtle bowl-to-bowl, franchise-to-franchise variations in the amount of meat doled out, to rely on the heavy- or light-handed whims of food-service employees.
Ultimately, to love a fast bowl is to love a delicious contradiction — chefs who cook via recipes passed down from corporate committees, mass research designed to perfect “individual” meals, hungry consumers who go out of the home to find a home-cooked meal. Yet, on a good day, with your Pollo Bowl just right, if you squint your eyes and listen to the hum of voices and children laughing, you could even say that the shopping-mall-food-court community is not all that removed from an old country village.
THE ONE TO WATCH:
El Pollo Loco
Balance is not just for tires and Zen masters. It’s also the key to a yummy bowl. Exhibit A: El Pollo Loco’s Smoky Black Bean Pollo Bowl ($3.79, 604 cal, 23g fat). On its own, each of the ingredients is beyond reproach. Fluffy, savory Spanish rice. Tender flame-broiled chicken that may not be “the best in the world” as the logo says, but is nonetheless very tasty. Tangy tomato salsa and unexpectedly barbecue-flavored black beans that are sweet and spicy and, yes, mildly smoky. There are even fresh chopped white onions for a bit of bite. Unfortunately, the serving that I got didn’t do the ingredients justice. Black beans, which take up the bulk of the bowl real estate, overwhelmed the mild flavor of the rice and chicken. A tiny smidge of salsa leaves one wanting more. Small flaw, considering. But a bowl’s greatest strength is also its greatest potential for weakness. In a single round container, there’s nowhere to hide. Ingredients mix. Flavors mingle. Proportion, no matter what they say, does matter. A tip for future eaters: ask for more rice, less bean.
THE INDUSTRIAL: Yoshinoya
The good things about Yoshinoya are that it’s open until really late at night, and the service is blindingly fast. The bad things about Yoshinoya are that it’s open until really late at night, and the service is blindingly fast. If you don’t mind bleary-eyed men in rumpled Members Only jackets, and industrial-chic décor — fluorescent lighting, grayish-white floor tile, grayish-pink wall accents and grayish-yellow countertops — this place can be sort of comforting. Think Orwell. Think 1984. This is why I’m here, at 3:05 a.m., with $3 in change, hobnobbing with the local night owls. Fifteen seconds and three customers later, Yoshinoya staff have thrown together their signature beef bowl with vegetables, regular size ($2.64, 770 cal, 23g fat). The menu boasts what seems like every possible pairing of chicken, shrimp, beef, rice and steamed vegetables. The woman behind the counter hands over a brown plastic tray and a white Styrofoam bowl filled with piping-hot ribbons of beef; rice; a few bits of cabbage and broccoli; and two crinkle-cut steamed-carrot disks. The real surprise about Yoshinoya is that the food — with the exception of the slimy, mushy boiled veggies — is actually pretty tasty. Thin-shaved pieces of beef are cooked in an onion-soy broth. The rice is extra-sticky. And who could fault the warped logic of cheesecake ($1.19) after a tempura bowl?
THE CORPORATE ICON: Koo Koo Roo
So it’s got a sassy winking-chicken logo. So its menus are full-color and printed on glossy stock. With its ace-in-the-sleeve corporate confidence, customer expectations couldn’t be higher at Koo Koo Roo. But really, how far would you trust a coy one-eyed cartoon chicken who comments on the lack of “French Bordeaux” on the to-go menu? Please. I suppose that depends on how you like your “saffron” rice — moist and fluffy, or dry like a bird in a desert windstorm. Sure, where art’s concerned, Picasso’s got nothing on Koo Koo Roo — the Chargrilled Chicken Chop Bowl ($5.99, 635 cal, 13.7 fat, sans sauce) is by far the most aesthetically appealing of the fast-food bowls. Yellow rice, red tomatoes, white onions, green lettuce, purple blue-corn tortilla chips and lightly browned chicken cubes are layered in sectors over a bed of black beans. Every color group may indeed be present and accounted for, but it still doesn’t change the fact that the curried mustard sauce is so mild you can’t taste it, the tortilla chips seem out of place, and the chicken itself tastes more “okay” than “exceptional.” Which just goes to show that good looks and a smashing brand-identity campaign only get you so far. Even in the chicken world.
THE VALEDICTORIAN: Jack in the Box
Following in the footsteps of the geniuses who transform heavy metal into Muzak, the fast-food teriyaki bowl proves that somehow, somewhere, there will always be someone eager to take a unique art form and turn it into fluff. Still, even the world of doddering shoppers and elevator tunes has its moments of glory. (“The Girl From Ipanema,” anyone?) Hence: the Jack in the Box Chicken Teriyaki Bowl. Jack has assembled a modest gathering of starchy carbos, vegetables and lean protein. The steamed rice, not too sticky, not too dry, is solidly on the better side of competent cooking. The broccoli, remarkably, is boiled al dente and retains its crunch. The all-white-meat chicken, sliced into thin strips and coated in a sweet teriyaki sauce, deftly demonstrates that not all meat coming out of a drive-through window has to be processed into the shape of a patty. Jack in the Box’s legion of happy, smiling Styrofoam balls have clearly done their homework in the health department — out of their bowl’s 670 calories, only 4 grams are from fat. Lovers of convenience food can keep their idealism intact and rest assured that in America, one can indeed go to a small window on the side of a building and procure a tasty, low-fat meal in under five minutes. No, no, thank you, Jack!
THE ALMOST-EXOTIC: Sorabol
Who knew chicken could be red and orange? Every bowl at Century City Plaza’s Sorabol — Korean for “the center of everything” — comes with sticky steamed rice topped with kimchi-style pickled broccoli, cabbage and carrots, a small serving of “vermicelli” clear glass noodles and one entrée that you choose from a cafeteria-style spread of chafing dishes. The dense, spicy chicken ($6.50), a scant two steps removed from chicken jerky, comes marinated in a thick red paste. Unless you can maneuver your chopsticks on the atomic level, eventually the savory chicken, mild rice, gently salty noodles and sour veggies are overcome by the spicy meat marinade. Spicy, spicy everywhere. Barbecue beef is the better bet. Again, it’s meat jerky reanimated, but still worth it, since Sorabol’s flavors are a pleasant enough departure from the ubiquitous teriyaki stylings of the common herd.
THE GUILTY PLEASURE: Panda Express
Every stereotype you’ve ever heard about Chinese fast food comes true at the Panda Express. It’s the express of decadence, the express of heavy, salty-sweet, sticky, orange-flavored, deep-fried chicken, of greasy, chewy beef broccoli that you can’t stop eating, of starchy chow mein, and of gobs and gobs of piping-hot steamed rice. It’s the express of Alka-Seltzer regrets and New Year’s resolutions gone to hell. Pandas do not eat like this every day. The sign says, “No MSG,” but who cares? The Mandarin Bowl ($4.09), which looks nothing like its glamour shot, comes with predetermined steamed rice, steamed veggies (broccoli and carrots mostly) and slices of greasy chicken smothered in supersweet teriyaki . . . excuse me, Mandarin sauce. Anyone standing in line for the Panda Express who says she’s on a diet has got to be kidding. Entrées range from 9 to 29 grams of fat per serving. Take the direct route to gluttony with the one-item bowl ($4.19), and pick your own vice.
THE ULTRA-ORGANIC: Dr. J’s Healthy & Tasty
All right, so the bowls at Dr. J’s in Westwood aren’t technically bowls, being rectangular rather than round. But why quibble with geometry when the chef can make a delicious crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside chicken nugget that isn’t technically chicken? Everything at Dr. J’s Healthy & Tasty is vegetarian, organic, low-fat, sugar-free, wheat-free, dairy-free and yeast-free. Granted, Dr. Juliet Tien’s got some pretty serious aggressions toward yeast. One could say these views are obsessive. Militant, even. Perhaps yeast is “the root of all evil,” as her propaganda materials say. Be that as it may, given all the ingredients the place doesn’t use (oops, almost forgot caffeine-free and no MSG), it’s amazing the food has taste. Heck, it’s amazing that there’s food at all. For $7.50, depending on the daily buffet special, you get a portion of four items ranging from brown rice and grilled tofu to vegetarian ham (“an amazing tofu product that looks and tastes just like ham”) or vegetarian chicken nuggets (“an amazing tofu product that looks and tastes just like chicken”). The “cleansing-balance” tea that comes with the meal is unlike any tea I’ve ever had — was that licorice? Orange flower? Cloves? Though my first reaction to this mysterious “mountain herb” brew doesn’t translate well into print (it goes something like “nyggaagh . . .”), on my second visit I sheepishly asked for a bigger cup. An acquired taste, for sure. Dr. J’s food — the hearty and spicy yellow-curry potato, in particular — has the unpretentious feel of home cooking. The one downfall of all this healthiness is that most of the entrées draw from a very restricted flavor palette; i.e., they all tend to taste the same. Small price to pay, though, for cuisine that clears “mind fog.”