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Rice bowl at SKWR Kabobline.JPG
Rice bowl at SKWR Kabobline (Image: Laura Hayes)

I ate nothing but fast casual bowls for a week. Here's how they compare

There are enough quick-bite restaurants dishing out bowls to make it possible to go on a bowl-only diet for one full work week. I know this because I tried it. For five straight days, I downed a new bowl for lunch and dinner. By the end, I was more than ready to sink my teeth into the crusty bread of a sandwich, but my quest helped discern who's slinging the best bowls in D.C. Here they are in top ten order:

1. Cava Grill (Multiple locations)

I have one rule when it comes to dining: Never drive past a Cava Grill without going in. Anyone who knows me knows of my addiction to the Greek fast casual spot whose humble, local beginnings are fanning out into a national sensation. You can smell Cava employees grilling the lamb sliders in house, the first piece of evidence no corners are cut and the dips and spreads don't hold back, even though they're catering to the masses. The harissa makes my eyes water, just the way I like it. I cheated more than Fitz Grant on Cava Grill this week, but I've come crawling back.

My order: Greens & grains bowl with lamb sliders, roasted red pepper hummus, harissa, eggplant + red pepper, mint, pickled onions, cabbage slaw, cucumbers and lemon herb tahini

2. Donburi (Adams Morgan)

Living in Japan for two years taught me the advantage of specialization. Most restaurants in my second home focus on one dish -- that's why you'll see ramen shops, katsu houses, yakitori bars and sushi counters. When Donburi opened in 2013, I squirmed with delight and they haven't slacked off since. The namesake dish, donburi, is a Japanese rice bowl typically topped with meat or fish and pickles. The Adams Morgan spot has katsu-style breading and frying down pat, and the eggy, onion sauce that coats the whole shebang sings. Only the quality of the rice could be upped. I find myself missing the shiny, springy grains from overseas.

My order: Ebi katsudon

3. Shouk (Mt. Vernon Triangle)

Shouk in Mt. Vernon is so new it still smells of fresh paint and eagerness to please, but it's already a contender. The plant-based comfort food menu, code for 100% vegetarian, is Middle Eastern; that means creamy tahina, warming harissa, cashew labneh, pistachio pesto and more flavors that come together in a symphony of spices. All seven pita orders can be converted into a rice and lentil bowl and each features a different lead ingredient ranging from mushrooms and cauliflower to ratatouille. I'd fast track Shouk to the top if there was an option to customize a bowl, but the addictive rosemary lemonade (nearly devoid of sugar) makes up for it.

My order: Roasted fennel, crispy potato, red pepper and pistachio pesto

4. Chaia (Georgetown)

Yes, they're tacos. But look, they come in a bowl! It's not cheating! I find myself making excuses to go to Georgetown just to get my hands on a trio of veggie tacos. Chaia is one of those farmer's market turned brick & mortar success stories -- and for good reason. The taco that got me hooked like a teenager reading the Twilight series is creamy kale & potato because it's rich, tangy and messy in the best way. Follow the golden rule of good food and add a fried egg to your order on the weekends.

My order: Taco trio with creamy kale + potato, spring greens, and butternut squash

5. Little Sesame (Dupont Circle)

Hummus isn't a side at Little Sesame. It's the main act, and rightfully so. In the vein of the popular Dizengoff in Philadelphia, or more importantly, the hummus shops on every corner in Israel, Little Sesame serves up creamy bowls of house made hummus with savory toppings, warm pita and a side salad with Sephardic spices. To access this charmer, walk down the treacherous steps at the back of DGS Delicatessen or just traipse through the restaurant with a dire look of I-need-hummus on your face and someone will help you navigate. You guessed it, Little Sesame is from the same team that brought Jewish deli culture back to D.C.

My order: Whichever is the most seasonal, or the newest, since I'm there once a week

6. Spice 6 (Hyattsville & Dunn Loring)

You can bowl two ways at Spice 6 -- a from-scratch, Indian fast casual joint that has locations in Hyattsville, Md. and Dunn Loring, Va. The first is a rice bowl that follows a Chipotle assembly line (you were waiting for the first mention of this, weren't you). Pick proteins like marinated chicken or grilled lamb; a choice of chickpeas or sautéed vegetables; a curry selection such as tikka masala or spinach masala; and finally chutney (go spicy or go home). Craving a break from rice, I opted for a chaat. Layers of chickpeas and potatoes are enlivened by fresh herbs and both tamarind and coriander-mint sauces.

My order: Tikki chaat

7. The Little Beet (Dupont Circle)

New York import, The Little Beet, is the answer for the sans-gluten crowd. It's no surprise then that the menu pulls heavily from Asia where rice rules the land. The Dupont Circle shop offers five bowls. Two capitalize on poke mania (they take on salmon poke and mushroom poke), while others are more salad-like. On every visit they've been lightening fast, always a plus at lunch, and the bowls taste fresh and inspired.

My order: Miso chicken with brown rice, cabbage-soba noodle salad, Romaine, pickled Asian slaw, wasabi nori shakes and miso-ginger glaze

8. Beefsteak (Multiple locations)

I'm all in on José Andrés. The Chef/Restaurateur built this food city with his bare hands. But, I'm having trouble fully boarding the blanched veggie train at Beefsteak. For the uninitiated, Beefsteak asks diners to choose from a bounty of chopped vegetables that get a kiss from hot water before mixing with grains and toppings. The flavor is there, but I miss the crunch of raw vegetables. When I make my own, the result tastes like six-year-old Laura experimenting in the kitchen, so I leave it to the experts by going with one of the recommended bowls.

My order: Frida Kale with rice, kale, black bean, spicy tomato, cherry tomato, scallions, corn nuts, pumpkin seeds, cranberries, avocado and lemon honey dressing.

9. SKWR Kabobline (Downtown)

Familiarity hits me when I step up to order my build-a-bowl at SKWR. The K Street eatery lets me compose a rice bowl with Afghan flare including spreads like hummus and eggplant that remind me of Cava Grill. The key difference is the proteins come from kebabs, which you can see twirling like ballerinas in the back. And, there are a few cool toppings like apple chutney, olivieh and carrot slaw that make the bowls colorful in additional to flavorful. The only thing that stops me from raving is that my bowl always feels wet from too many sauces.

My order: Brown rice bowl with eggplant, apple chutney, yogurt + cucumber, chicken, cabbage, cabbage slaw, salata and za'atar yogurt aioli

10. Maki Shop (14th Street)

I'm a sucker for Maki Shop's rolls. They're so much fun to unfurl in flavors like tuna poke or kabocha squash. In fact, when they opened, I was practically on a Maki Shop intravenous drip. However, the bowls they rolled out in the winter to offer something warm don't achieve the same shout-it-from-the-rooftops success. The meat in the bulgogi beef bowl is savory and stained with enough flavors from its marinade, but its supporting cast needs a boost. A quick pickle on the daikon and carrots would help. Now that my challenge is over, I'm going back to my beloved rolls.

My order: Bulgogi beef bowl