Kale. Corn. Quinoa. Raw fish. Whatever it is, throw it in a bowl and that lunch is suddenly on trend.
Right now, bowled meals are big. Power bowls, grain bowls and poke are fresh, easy to eat and pretty. When the bowl is not brimming with fried chicken or covered with cheese, it’s pretty good for you, too.
Industry consultants estimate that between 2010 and 2016, U.S. menus saw a 31 percent increase in “bowled items,” and Madison has bowls a-plenty. Following Chipotle's burrito bowls, we have Bowl of Heaven for acai bowls, Forage Kitchen for grain bowls, Miko Poke for poke bowls or Naf Naf Grill for a Mediterranean bowl.
Fast casual chain restaurant Cafe Zupas at 8310 Greenway Blvd. in Middleton is among the latest additions, offering bright red bowls of salads, soups and grains made in view of the diner.
A 2016 Wall Street Journal article proclaimed that “bowls are the new plates,” adding that bowls are great for “casual, one-course meals that layer flavors.” (I found this vindicating, following the infamous Wedding Registry Disagreement of 2017 wherein my now-husband didn’t understand my insistence on both regular and low bowls.)
Bowl dishes are often marketed as healthy options, typically with lots of leafy greens or bright berries. They can easily be made gluten or dairy-free. For those avoiding tortillas, no worries! Just put all those delicious burrito contents in a bowl.
Cafe Zupas takes full advantage of the bowl trend's healthy appeal. The legend of Cafe Zupas goes that Rob Seely and Dustin Schulties, two tech professionals, were sick of their unhealthy options when eating out.
In 2004, they opened their first fast casual spot in Provo, Utah. There are now some 50 locations nationally, with the greatest number in Utah.
Everything, Cafe Zupas insists over and over, is made from scratch. The sandwich spreads? Those were made today. The lettuce? Staff chops it in-house. Zupas is also very anti-"soup in a bag," which was easy to get behind.
To prove this commitment to scratch cooking, a window allows a view of the back of the restaurant where the kitchen prepares soups, dressings and spreads. This is standard for Cafe Zupas locations, designed for transparency over entertainment. (Sure, it’s fun to watch bakers decorating elaborate cakes, but there's a reason there is no Great British Salad Show.)
"We thought, we go to all this work to make everything fresh, and people don't know it," co-owner Dustin Schulties has said. "We wanted to let people see for themselves.”
I spied on these workers for a while, and witnessed the salad-prepping process in real time. It wasn’t exactly thrilling, but the window did provide a satisfyingly look into an organized kitchen, with neat stacks of colorful ingredients in transparent containers.
The Middleton location opened last year, and it seems like it’s already picked up quite a fan base. This club was bumpin’ on a Wednesday lunch hour.
Airport security-style aisles herded me into a swiftly moving line and I momentarily panicked, realizing I had not yet figured out how to order food in this assembly-line system. This was on me — also like airport security, helpful signs explained how to order, but the current carried me too fast to read them.
I found myself face-to-face with the first chipper worker in the assembly line, who, upon hearing my order, mentioned that he had helped make the vinaigrette for that bowl.
From there on, I was transferred from employee to employee, each cheerfully fulfilling part of my order. In this fashion I bounced down the line of ingredients, which popped with multicolored ingredients like candied pecans, apple slices, quinoa and cinnamon almonds.
Wanting to get into the spirit of the thing, I was double bowlin’ it with orders of soup and a quinoa bowl. I chose two seasonal options, the salmon chowder (a last minute choice after a free sample swayed me, $4.59 for a half bowl,) and the Winter Wellness Quinoa Protein Bowl ($8.99). The latter piled on a laundry list of ingredients, from braised turkey and sweet potato to dried cranberries and toasted walnuts.
The employee carefully placed sliced gala apples just so, sprinkled fontina cheese just there, presenting an Instagrammable pinwheel of ingredients on the bed of kale and quinoa. “Winter Wellness” was an apt name for the bowl, which was comforting thanks to tender turkey, but light in a sweet maple vinaigrette.
When I sat down, I discovered a delightful chocolate-covered strawberry on my tray. It’s a fun little freebie that comes with every meal.
Even the miniature dessert came with a fresh little origin story. “This pretty berry was delivered to us this morning, then hand-dipped in Imported Belgian chocolate right here in our kitchen,” the wrapper explained. How sweet.