Fondue, sandwiches and hot pot, they're fun and all, but food just tastes better when other people make it for you. And salads are no exception. I'm always entranced by the gleaming surfaces and myriad toppings at the Central Market salad bar, yet the resulting concoction usually ends up more like a train wreck than a prize winner. Beets, mandarins, anchovies and feta, topped with Thousand Island? No, thank you. Instead, mosey on over to Bowl, where they'll make a gorgeous salad for you with toppings that are exactly to your choosing. No more runaway tongs, death by dressing, or mismatched proportions. Just a beautiful salad that looks good and tastes great.
It can certainly be a struggle to find a nice salad in a town so fanatical for Tex-Mex, barbecue and burgers. Fortunately, new salad places have been blooming; Salata is one example that has been popular enough to expand to seven restaurants in business-heavy areas around town.
And also there's Bowl, a small do-it-yourself salad joint tucked into a block of Richmond Avenue. The location offers a quiet quality, hidden right there in plain sight in a type of no-man's-land between Midtown and Montrose. The restaurant's interior is at once invigorating — a mess of tables shoehorned into a well-lit space — and peaceful. Bowl opened two summers ago, offering condensed hours only, but steady success has led to growth.
As you walk in, pick up a paper menu from the front counter. The form features a crazy-extensive list of salad ingredients and dressings. Choose your greens, check off the toppings, pick a meat, cheese and dressing, and then pass your order to a server, usually the restaurant's owner. A few minutes later, your custom salad arrives. The system is pretty straightforward:
• Ten toppings, one cheese and one
dressing is $7
• 15 toppings, one cheese and one
dressing is $10
• Add a protein (herb chicken, beef tender, shrimp) for $3
Salads are neither too big nor too small, contain fresh ingredients and arrive promptly. The lengthy topping list (they claim more than 200 ingredients, toppings and dressings) is key for those of us who like a lot of "stuff" in our greens. Math majors know that that's a lot of flavor combinations, while nonmathematicians will appreciate the actual breadth of the list itself: beets, corn, walnuts, peppers, artichokes, golden raisins, peas, chickpeas, meats, cheeses and more; many of the ingredients are organic, and all of them are fresh. The list of dressings is equally vast — and growing by the day. I usually choose to set aside my obsession with balsamic vinaigrette in favor of the deliciously luminous lemon-tarragon dressing.
My first several trips to Bowl involved salads, and salads only. But after dozens of twists, turns and combos, I branched out. No need to kill myself trying the 200 toppings when there are scores of other things to try. For non-herbivores, Bowl features an impressive list of sandwiches.
The El Capitan is the most popular, and it's easy to see why — prosciutto and brie, grilled to melty on crunchy-fresh bread, served alongside a heaping helping of not-to-be-overlooked housemade potato chips (excellent). The El Capitan is more of a panini, a nice option for those who are less health conscious. If prosciutto is not your style, the smoked salmon sammy is impressive, though nothing creatively mind-blowing. I didn't expect much from the pulled pork with Thai coleslaw — who gets pulled pork at a restaurant where salad is the star? — but it's a winner. The meat is moist and well spiced, while the coleslaw is refreshingly light (not slathered with mayonnaise). Even the pistachio chicken salad sandwich offers an interesting twist of culinary harmony. The pistachios steal the show, while the sprouts and tomato are just gravy. Cool, crispy, delicious gravy.
Beyond the salads are the flatbread pizzas. The proprietors at Bowl are certainly proud of them, but the two I've tried both arrived limp and lackluster with an underdone crust. (As the recent commercials for The Tavern remind us, nobody cares for limp-dick pizza.) The tomato, basil and goat cheese pizza offers classic, fresh flavors — the taste is there — yet becomes a miss when the crust can't withstand the simple motion from plate to mouth. While Absinthe, Bowl's sister and neighbor, wins rave reviews for its mean pizza — and supposedly they use the same ingredients, method and oven — the ones at Bowl somehow have not achieved greatness yet.
Dessert is easy to justify after a big salad — it's all about moving the calories around — so if you're willing to break your healthy habit, grab a homemade chocolate chip cookie on your way out. A sweet ending to a serene meal.
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