As with their soft tacos, Taco Bell's steak is entirely unmemorable. Without the facilities or willingness to provide better meat, these bowls are bound to fail. And fail they do, thanks in no small part to an undersalted, mushy steak that is supposed to be the shining star.
Taco Bell Chicken Cantina Bowl
I previously suggested violence against anyone attempting to order a chicken soft taco at Taco Bell, because their poultry is so poor. I stand by that assessment for their bowls as well. Just look at the smooth, pale, chunks of reconstituted chicken in the above photo. Unless you like the taste of rubber, stay away.
Taco Bell Veggie Cantina Bowl
There's also another overwhelming aspect of the awful Taco Bell Cantina bowls that must be mentioned: Their terrible Ranch cilantro sauce concoction. It's thick and wet and far too tangy, and it's on absolutely every aspect of your bowl. With the veggie option arriving as the same bowl just without the meat, there is simply no way to avoid this awful sauce.
El Pollo Loco Pollo Bowl
Man, the chicken at El Pollo Loco is great. Grilled over open flame right there in the open kitchen, each bite is tender and still a little juicy, with the flame-licked bits of smoky goodness every chicken deserves. Piled onto a smallish bowl with fresh white diced onions and a field full of cilantro, you've already got a nice little meal. Then, when you're mixing everything together, you notice something genius: Whole pinto beans, hidden beneath the seasoned rice and toppings, waiting to be discovered. You might need to load up at the salsa bar, but the Pollo Bowl is a great fast lunch option.
El Pollo Loco Ultimate Bowl
After all that, the Ultimate Bowl is even better. Nearly twice as big, the Ultimate version adds a touch of sour cream, cheese and a few slices of avocado for a nice, smooth, complete blend of protein, dairy, carbs and veggies. And the best part? You can upgrade to Ultimate for less than $1.50 over the regular Pollo Bowl.
Baja Fresh Loaded Chicken Bowl
As with their vegetarian burritos, Baja Fresh does not shy away from the Mexican cheese blend. If you can't see it in the photo, that's because it's cleverly hidden underneath a pretty large pile of well-grilled chicken. It's a touch dry, but no worse for wear once the 6 chile salsa gets mixed in.
If anything, the Loaded bowl is just a little bit...boring. The bites of fired corn are nice, but this chicken bowl needs more than just white meat and some salsa to really get the party going. The pared-down Skinny version of this bowl is even more neutral, although that's likely the reason you'd order it. Bumping up to Loaded does not increase the flavor factor.
Baja Fresh Baja Steak & Shrimp Bowl
This is the best of your bowl options at Baja Fresh. Sure, the shrimp is tame and could really use a bit more char, but the steak here is actually really good. Deeply beefy and tender, it mixes well with the salsa and the rice to make a hearty afternoon lunch. There's also no greasy cheese, and the vegetables here have a bit more snap to them. All in all, this bowl is certainly a gut buster, but by far the tastiest option for bowls at Baja Fresh.
Rubio's Grilled Shrimp Grande Bowl
As much as Rubio's has impressed me recently with their Mexican offerings, these bowls are terrible. Sure, the grilled shrimp is wonderfully blackened and tender, but roughly half of this square trough bowl is just shredded cabbage. Apparently more rice is too expensive a filler for Rubio's, but not, oh, every other place in the world. What's left is a ton of bland roughage that kills what could otherwise be a balanced bowl experience.
Rubio's Grilled Chicken Grande Bowl
Again, the main ingredient - in this case a slightly smoky chicken - is well-prepared, but can't stand up against a bowl full of pale shredded cabbage. Even mixing in the scoop of guacamole and a mildly spicy chipotle sauce can't help these bowls. Maybe you can ask for no cabbage if you order this sometime. Or maybe you can never ever think about ordering it, unless you like picking through your food and piles of cabbage that taste like hay.
Wahoo's Kalua Pig Bowl
I was pretty critical of Wahoo's carnitas taco offerings a few weeks back, but I have to say that I'm very pleased with their simple bowls. By stripping away the lackluster tortilla and removing the pile of shredded lettuce and pico de gallo, the teriyaki-glazed pig really has the chance to shine. It's nicely pulled and sufficiently tender, with a good salting and a hint of sweetness. The accompanying pile of white rice needs some sort of cilantro / spice kick, but otherwise this is a fine, fast bowl option.
Wahoo's Wafu Bowl
Wahoo's menu offers all of their meat choices as bowl options, but given that we've dissected them all already, I opted to also try the only remaining protein available: Tofu. In this case, tofu mixed with the mushrooms I liked so much last week. Opting for brown rice and white 'Cajun-style' beans makes this a decidedly un-Mexican dish, but the tender tofu squares with a hint of peppery seasoning should not be overlooked. This was definitely one of the best bowls I found.