Saturday, August 18, 2018

Bowled over: From acai to poke, the top 10 bowls in Tampa Bay

Why, exactly, are bowls the new plates?

The Wall Street Journal declared it so. Tableware companies like Fiesta have reported serious double-digit growth in the sale of bowls — salad bowls, cereal bowls, you name it. Fast-food restaurants have jumped on board, heaping ingredients into to-go bowls to eschew buns (all the better for those avoiding carbs and gluten).

But this trend is more than a rebuttal to bread. It’s a rejection of the old way of viewing the plate: animal protein center stage, a starch over here, a veg in the third quadrant. Bowls are about mixing, blending flavors and textures, nothing subordinate to anything else. Bowls are the highest expression of customizability: Hate quinoa? Go kale! Not eating red meat? It’s tempeh time! Bowls tend to be healthy(ish). And bowls are fast, most ingredients raw or precooked, so assembly is a scoop-and-dump endeavor. Bowl restaurants don’t need extensive kitchens and prep rooms, just long rows of metal tubs.

Millennials are not killing plates, but they sure like bowls. So, it appears, does everyone else. (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle served bowls at their wedding breakfast.) Just about every community in the Tampa Bay area now has a Brazilian acai bowl emporium and a house of Hawaiian poke. Most are point-and-choose, between $8 and $10 as a baseline, the stuff of Instagram fetish.

There are burrito bowls, protein bowls, sushi bowls, grain bowls, pitaya bowls — I could go on. But let’s start with some terms.

What is an acai bowl?

Acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) is a Brazilian-grown grapelike tropical fruit from a palm tree, with loads of fiber and other purported health benefits. It is often found as a frozen puree, not a whole fruit. (In the United States, the acai bowl tends to be very sweet and almost ice cream-like. Elsewhere it’s a rougher texture and less sweet.) On top of this base you choose berries, seeds, nuts, granola, oatmeal, nut butters and goofy chocolate things (unnecessary). A pitaya bowl is basically the same, but its base is a puree of neon-pink dragonfruit, more like kiwi in flavor and texture.

Okay, now poke? Originating in Hawaii, a base of rice is topped with seasoned, raw fish and vegetables (cucumber, avocado, edamame, pickled ginger, pineapple) and sauces. Poke (poh-kay) is the Hawaiian verb for "to slice or cut." Can you ditch the raw fish cubes in favor of cooked chicken or fried shrimp? Yup. Not feeling the rice but want a bed of kale and other greens? No problem.

Now, who is bowling strikes with bowls? What follows is an unscientific analysis and ranking of Tampa Bay’s best bowls.

1. Grain & Berry Cafe

2784 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. (813) 631-0676.

33840 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor. (727) 771-7794

• The grand opening of the University of South Florida area location was in May, and other franchises in the area have sold. The original Palm Harbor location calls itself a superfood cafe. If you’ve hung out with me for any time, you will have heard me grouch about most smoothie places: tons of high-fructose corn syrup, lots of processed food and chemical add-ins, and so, so much sugar. How did we convince ourselves this was good for us? Grain & Berry does smoothies with pretty much real food, as well as stunning acai and pitaya bowls (also kale, oatmeal and yogurt bowls). Decor is lovely, like a great coffeehouse with long wood tables, a wood-paneled order counter and a series of punny signs ("I like big bowls and I cannot lie," "Oh, kale no!"). Half the customers seem to be getting some work done in a desultory fashion, the other half are taking selfies with their acai bowls. We opted for a Relax, Eat, Repeat (acai, granola, banana, strawberries, honey, peanut butter, Nutella, crushed nuts; $9.81) and a Dragon Berry (pitaya, granola, banana, blueberries, strawberries, peanut butter, Nutella, coconut flake; $9.81), beautifully composed, ginormous and with complementary flavors. The win went to the Dragon Berry because the pitaya had a more bracing tartness to stand up to the sweetness of the Nutella.

2. Poke Rose

Hall on Franklin, 1701 N Franklin St., Tampa. (813) 405-4008.

Coming soon: 13100 Seminole Blvd., Suite 103, Largo.

• The Hall on Franklin opened last fall as the area’s first real food hall. Developer Jamal Wilson brought together seven vendors, the offerings synergistic and not duplicative, each operating independently but coming together with a service style that is a traditional sit-down restaurant experience with servers and food runners, a single bill presented at meal’s end. My favorite food vendor is Poke Rose, the brainchild of Jason Cline (formerly the chef at the Birchwood in St. Petersburg), which he runs with his cousin, Daniel Cline. Since opening, prices have gone up slightly ($11.95 for a small, $15.95 for a large) and the serving receptacles have been switched to pretty black lacquer bowls. My original favorite was the Poke Rose bowl, warm jasmine rice nearly obscured by rosy tuna cubes, scallion, radish, edamame, hijiki (a cool, bouncy brown sea vegetable that is mostly texture), radish, avo, sesame seeds, spicy ginger, spicy aioli and a sprinkling of chia seed. Still good. But I’m also digging on the brown rice bowl with citrus-inflected tuna cubes, this one paired with cuke and mushroom. And if you’re trying to go raw, there’s a bowl that is bedded down on riced cauliflower with cucumber kimchi.

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3. Sweet Soul

1101 S Howard Ave., Tampa. (813) 575-7100.

• White subway tile, a wall of yellow and pink plastic bananas, picnic tables with strings of little white lights on the covered patio (plus, pingpong!) — this is an adorable "superfood bar" brought to you by the Ciccio Restaurant Group, set in what once was a carwash in SoHo. Managing partner Taylor Winter is super connected with the Plant High School crowd, which keeps this place hopping. Lots of folks seem to get the black charcoal-activated ice cream, perhaps as a hangover remedy or perhaps prophylactically. (I can’t eat the stuff because in college I did a poison control experiment to make money involving drinking charcoal and sorbitol in suspension. Shudder.) It fits with CRG’s fitness-healthy food mission (they have Camp Tampa fitness studio nearby and bowls-concept Fresh Kitchen up the street), but this one is all sweetness, with acai bowls, smoothies, soft serve and such. The anchor here is a build-your-bowl system: Pick a base (dragonfruit blend, overnight oats, protein chia pudding, etc.; $7-$9), then choose three sweets (berries and other fruit, cookie crumbles), two toppings (goji berries, hemp seed) and a drizzle or dusting (almond butter, electric pink dragonfruit powder). It can take a bit of time to get in and out of here, but the staff seems deadly serious about getting your vegan coconut whipped cream just right.

4. Karma Juice Bar

209 First St. NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-4000.

2095 Drew St., Unit B, Clearwater. (727) 223-9688.

• This little sweetie was before its time, debuting in 2015 in a tiny space that has since been expanded. I first fell in love with its avocado toast (stop heckling, and they seem to not make them anymore) and fresh-squeezed juice, but since then have come under the sway of the Brainiac acai ($9.75), its acai blended with strawberry, banana and almond milk for a lush texture, on top of which are planted more bananas and strawberries, granola, pumpkin seeds, raisins, chia and a little gloss of local honey. If you don’t want to take lunch in an entirely sweet direction, Karma also boasts a lineup of excellent salads (Asian chicken salad; avocado and garbanzo beans with mint), most $10.95, and a brawny array of 20-ounce green smoothies. (Your wallet will notice these, priced at $12 and $14.)

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5. Poke Café

1140 Main St., Dunedin. (727) 871-7653.

• During a recent visit this place seemed under-patronized, but it makes the top 10 list because it was an early adopter, bringing poke to North Pinellas in the middle of 2016. (Okay, nearby Honu has done variations on poke even before moving from its old location.) It’s a quick, largely grab-and-go spot (more takeout orders than dine-in, from what I could see), and the prices are by weight (quarter pound for $8.95, half pound for $12.95, ¾ pound for $16.95). Pick your base (white or brown rice, cold sesame noodles, kale salad with miso ginger dressing), protein, then toppings (wasabi, peanuts, "crunchies") and sauces (they seem to go heavy on the sauce squiggles, so plan accordingly). Nice touch: Owners Colleen Vilches and Ken Gulley let you do a poke sampler of all their fillings (mussels, salmon, cubes of spicy shoyu ahi, etc.), and the poke burrito option seems to be a big seller.

6. Poke Fish

4424 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. (813) 252-4189.

• There are more established poke spots like Big Island Poke on Gandy and U Poke Spot on Fowler, but this newcomer will get my return business on the strength of its lively flavors, clean and fresh ingredients and balanced sauces. It’s a bright room, dominated by an ordering counter with just a few tables, with the feel of a Smoothie King, which is about right because owner Brad Matherne has owned several Smoothie Kings. He first saw poke spots in his hometown of New Orleans and thought there was a void in the Tampa Bay market for a fast-casual poke concept. Meanwhile, between the time he chose a location and opened his doors, the category has exploded. The snack size here is one base and one poke scoop ($8.95, and because it’s in a deep cup, it ends up being hard to incorporate everything in an individual bite), regular is two bases and two poke scoops ($12.95), large is two bases, three poke scoops ($14.95). The guys behind the counter were very generous with the toppings, from three different colors of tobiko to seaweed salad and frizzled onions, and they carefully marinate your tuna or salmon and then top the whole bowl with sauces of your choosing. (The original poke sauce has a nice kick, as did the ponzu with its citrusy oomph.)

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7. Rico’s Acai

411 N Florida Ave., Tampa. (813) 944-0110.

• This is an outpost of a small chain from North Carolina where Marie Williams’ cousin runs them. Williams started this one, really a food truck that’s sunk roots, near the end of 2016. It’s tiny and options aren’t encyclopedic, but it’s a very solid place to familiarize yourself with the concept. The base is unadulterated, just a packet of Sambazon acai (fair trade and organic) not blended with a lot of other fruit or milk, so it retains a more solid texture. The classic Brazil Bowl is topped with granola and banana ($7 small, $9 large), which you can gussy substantially when opting for things like the Butter Bro Bowl, which gets the addition of almond butter, peanut butter, Nutella and hemp seed ($11, $13).

8. Poke Island

7093 66th St. N, Pinellas Park. (727) 350-4040.

• This one has been open just a couple of months, at the end of an inauspicious strip mall with a vape shop. Bowls, boba and sushi burritos are the holy triumvirate, toppings and fixings arranged tidily in metal inserts along a fastidiously clean white counter. A handful of high-top tables flank one wall. Like Baskin-Robbins, they have little tasting spoons so you can try different sauces. (The original spice is kicky yet balanced, the eel sauce sweet, the poke spice with a touch of heat.) Prices are by the scoop (one for $8.95, two for $10.95, three for $12.95), veggies and toppings curated but fresh looking. I opted for spicy tuna and tempura shrimp (which they fry up to order) on a bed of white rice, with cilantro, cuke, cabbage, ginger, sesame seeds and crispy wontons crowded into the plastic two-part bowl. Pair that with a frozen green tea boba ($4.95) and it starts to be a splurge lunch, but so be it.

9. Ono Poke Bowl

927 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs.
(727) 331-1333.

• Tarpon Spring’s main drag is so dominated by Greek spots that it’s easy to do a double take when you see the plucky orange and pink script of this newcomer at the west end of the sponge docks, debuted this February. They are careful about sourcing (wild-caught tuna using sustainable practices, Atlantic salmon farmed sustainably on the coastline of Norway), and the owners couldn’t be friendlier. The place is spotless, with an overhead step-by-step chalkboard for ordering. Aloha has a laudably large number of proteins, from scallops to octopus, but a surprisingly small number of high-quality accoutrements and add-ins.

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10. Rahvia Acai Bowls

517 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater. (727) 754-6727.

• Frozen and slushy, the acai here is a little less sweet than at some other places, a good thing in my book. For the original bowl it’s blended with banana and then piled high with granola, bananas, strawberries and honey ($7), and for the Rahvia bowl ($9) it’s blended with banana, strawberries and blueberries, the puree topped with all of the above as well as coconut shreds, mango, granola and a swirl of coconut oil. You can build your own bowl, but each addition is 75 cents, which can sneak up on you. Rahvia, not far from the Publix and one of the few things to seem to be doing well in downtown Clearwater, focuses on the antioxidant effects of acai, touting a bowl as a nongroggy lunch alternative. Sure, lots of amino acids and fiber, but come 2:30 p.m. I’m starting to get peckish again.

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