Once synonymous with comfort food, bowls take on new context in the foodie era of millennials and health-conscious chowhounds. Recently, Southwest Florida has seen a boom in the bowl scene, with cafes and national chains, such as Bahia Bowls, which quickly spread to multiple locations in the Fort Myers-Naples area.
The beauty of the bowl trend is its variety and options for customization. They can be savory and hearty or vegan and light. They work best for breakfast and lunch, but anytime is bowl time. And the height of summer is as good a time as any to dip into multilayered crucibles of texture and flavor.
I recently stepped into the bowl arena, abandoning my former comfort-food associations and sidestepping larger franchises, to find bowl-you-over surprises in unexpected places.
The Bowl, Naples and Fort Myers
I observed and listened to what people were confidently ordering at the counter of one of the Naples locations as I, a confirmed waffler when it comes to food decisions, planned my order. The Bowl helps customers decide by suggesting some ideal flavor combinations. So, I could order the Key West bowl—a blend of açaí, pineapple, mango, banana and coconut milk—leaving me to only choose between the five toppings on the menu: granola, strawberries, banana, shredded coconut and honey. With all organic ingredients, The Bowl epitomizes this new wave of healthier eating, although the sugar quotient tipped the scale for me.
Spoondrift Island Bowls, Sanibel Island
I lean toward savory bowls and was already familiar with this operation, started by a family who sold at local farmers’ markets before opening on Sanibel a couple of years ago. To create a bowl, customers choose one of five bases, one or two proteins, four toppings from a list of 13 options, sauces, and garnishes, including cheeses, herbs and “crispies” (nuts, wasabi peas, crispy onions or chip dust). I ended up with a bowl of artisan greens topped with spicy tuna, jicama, cucumber, tomatoes, crispy onions, coconut-ginger and Thai peanut sauces, and sesame seeds.
Poke Bowl Café, Fort Myers
By now something of a bowl expert, I hit up this tiny strip mall storefront for Hawaiian poke, which I adore. Behind six others in line, I had ample time to sift through menu.
On a base of brown rice, I built raw ahi tuna and salmon, pineapple, spicy cucumber, carrots, corn, crispy onions and tangy ginger-soy and sesame-eel sauces. The result converted me wholly to a believer in the bowl trend.
Sanibel Fresh, Sanibel Island
Bowls are part of a much larger, healthy-eating menu at Sanibel Fresh, set in a bright, roomy space. Among the avocado toast, Key lime pancakes, and healthful salads, you’ll also find an açaí bowl with raw cocoa butter, banana, avocado and peanut butter; a madras curry bowl; and a smoked chicken burrito bowl. The curry bowl —a vegan option that you can un-vegan with smoked chicken, non-GMO tofu, shrimp or fresh catch of the day— is a hearty blend of seasonal veggies, chickpeas and sweet potatoes that was reminiscent of comfort food, but with the added satisfaction of feeling energized and sagely fueled.
Little Palm, Fort Myers Beach
Perhaps my biggest surprise was finding a vegan café in Fort Myers Beach. Formerly known as Fresh Connection, it underwent a name change about five months ago, but the owners and concept have stayed the same. Easy to miss, this little corner of clean eating is where I found my favorite breakfast bowl. Cleverly presented inside a coconut shell, the vegan chia pudding bowl layers silky, subtly sweet, coconut milk pudding with blackberry jam, almond granola and lovely fresh fruit (blueberries, strawberries and bananas). With menu options that run the gamut from coconut bacon and cheddar “cheeze” waffles to “chycken” salad made with almond and chickpeas, this place lives up to its tagline, “Coffee. Bowls. Grub. Vibes.,” in the most restoring way.