Grain bowls—convenient, customizable and with an enviable health halo—have become lunchtime staples, especially in the fast-casual world. Adaptable to multiple cuisines and diets, they are being taken to new levels of creativity by restaurant operators, as well as by their customers who retool them to suit their preferences.
“People love them,” said Martha Hoover, owner of Public Greens Urban Kitchen, a two-unit counter-service concept in Indianapolis with its own small farm. “They’re easy to eat, and a complete clean meal.”
Quinoa and farro are the most frequently used bases for Public Greens’ bowls, but millet, brown rice and white rice have appeared in them as well. The bowls are changed every four weeks, and recent ones have included the $14 Rainbow Bowl, with an array of colorful vegetables over basmati rice; the BLT Bowl, $16, with local bacon, tomatoes, soft-boiled eggs and kale over quinoa; and the $16 Asian Pork Bowl, which has teriyaki pork, soba noodles, cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, fried wontons and yogurt dressing.
While conveying a sense of wholesomeness and well-being to guests, grain bowls also allow creativity for chefs.
Ody Lugo, who with her husband Kenny Lugo founded Giardino Gourmet Salads, which has 17 locations in south Florida, said the possibilities for composing grain bowls are virtually endless.
“The sky is the limit,” she said. “I think we’ll see a lot more floral flavors and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients becoming even more popular. Once-exotic ingredients like harissa and preserved lemon will find their way into menus with increased frequency.”
She also sees a future in meat alternatives in grain bowls, as well as fermented, roasted and pickled vegetables.
Fresh&co., with more than a dozen locations in New York City, started as a salad chain, but now grain bowls make up 40 percent of sales.
The selection of made-to-order bowls start with the customer’s choice of quinoa or brown rice, then go in far-flung flavor directions: A baked falafel bowl with kale, grapefruit-pickled onions, pita points and tahini; a Korean barbecue bowl with pork, mango, chiles, radishes and scallions; a chicken shawarma bowl with baba ganoush and Israeli salad; and the South by Southwest bowl with raw corn, avocado, cotija cheese and pico de gallo, to name a few.
Recently added to the menu is the shrimp taco bowl with tomatillo, black beans, cabbage, kale, scallions and tortilla chips. “It’s already a proven winner,” co-founder George Tenedios said. “That bowl is already crushing it.”
At Café Hitchcock, chef-owner Brendan McGill takes a wellness-focused approach to his grain bowls, which contain whole grains like farro, quinoa and barley, as well as lentils and other nutrient-packed elements.
“The whole grains provide carbohydrates and fiber, so you get full from healthy carbs, while the legumes provide straight protein,” McGill said. “Add vegetables that are diverse in color and you’ll have diverse nutrition. Carrot, cabbage, parsley, avocado, radishes and eggplant give you all the pretty colors that, while visually attractive, also provide a full spectrum of nutrients.”
McGill also pays close attention to flavor and the way certain garnishes and condiments can really set a bowl up for success, particularly umami-rich dressing ingredients like shio koji, miso, tahini and fish sauce.
Café Hitchcock’s signature grain bowl features quinoa, toasted farro, caviar lentils, roasted carrots, pickled sultana raisins, a mix of mint, cilantro and dill, a tahini vinaigrette and, right at the end, a shower of crunchy salt, olive oil, pine nuts and more herbs.
“Using fermented vegetables like kimchi or any [made with] lactic fermentation like raw sauerkraut or raw dill pickles will contribute a complex flavor that is also probiotic,” McGill said.
Those finishing touches on any bowl can mean the difference between a forgettable meal or an Instagram like-generator.
“For garnishes I love organic seeds and nuts, as they’re also umami-rich and provide high-quality fats and wonderful texture,” McGill said, summing up his envisioned end result for his customers: “You’ll feel like a rock star all day after one of these bowls.”
The Lugos also focus on wellness at Giardino Gourmet Salads. Their philosophy of “Nutritional Empowerment,” means “every guest has the ability to customize a wide variety of salads, wraps and grain bowls from more than 60 fresh ingredients,” Ody Lugo said.
The two most popular made-to-order grain bowls at Giardino are My Big Fat Greek Bowl with quinoa, arugula, plum tomatoes, cucumber, black olives, feta, hummus, lemon juice and toasted pita chips; and The Gardener with quinoa, baby leaf lettuce, avocado, plum tomatoes, garbanzo beans, dried cranberries and olive vinaigrette, according to Lugo. Everything is made to order by what she calls “gardener chefs,” who make each bowl as guests walk down the line.
Two other grain bowls that began as LTOs have earned a spot on the regular menu: The El Caribe (jasmine rice, iceberg lettuce, plum tomatoes, avocado, black beans, roasted chicken, cilantro vinaigrette and plantain chips); and the Tuscan Sun (brown rice, baby leaf lettuce, sundried tomatoes, chickpeas, shredded Parmesan, roasted red peppers, roasted chicken and pesto).
While the composed bowls do very well, guests love the “My Way” grain bowls even more, Lugo said.
“They empower our guests to pick their own base, add four toppings, add a scoop of any protein, pick a dressing or sauce and then top them with their favorite homemade croutons,” she said. She added that grain bowls can do more than look good on Instagram feeds.
“There is a genuine need in the communities in which we operate for real, simple food that is handcrafted and focused on nutrient-rich ingredients,” Lugo said. “We provide our guests with an alternative to traditional fast food while transforming our restaurants into a gathering place for a garden-to-bowl meal.”
Piada tries grain bowls
New this summer, fast-casual concept Piada Italian Street Food, with 42 locations across the Midwest and Texas, is trying out the new Summer Power Bowl. “The inspiration for this hit when we were trying to create a menu item that was delicious, filling, healthy and something that everyone could eat,” executive chef Matt Harding said. “We spent months in the test kitchen working on the exact summer flavors and ingredients that would top this quinoa-based bowl.”
The gluten-free bowl starts with a base of red quinoa and is topped with roasted broccoli, sweet corn, glazed chickpeas and pickled red onions, marinated zucchini with harissa and a Greek yogurt drizzle.
This piece originally appeared on Nation's Restaurant News, a New Hope Network sister website. Visit the site for more restaurant trends insights.