A Food Lover’s Guide to Professional Bowling.
I’ve always preferred eating food from a bowl. Sure, this includes bowl-ready standards like gelato, grits or gruel but I don’t stop there. It’s essential that Chinese takeout be dumped from container to bowl and properly mixed. Essential. Why chase steak around when you can corral it? Salad on a plate? Salad plates? We’re talkin’ about salad plates?! A form-over-function slap in the face.
There’s a saying at Orlando Eats; “Noodles, dumplings, burritos and daals; everything tastes better surrounded by walls.” OK, it’s not a saying. Yet. Roll it around. Remember where you first heard it. Regardless, when it comes to bowls, we’ve long been unashamedly outspoken in our fandom. It now appears that diners far and wide are seeing the light. It’s become a bowl-shaped world.
Bowl restaurants are everywhere; It’s a fast-casual extravaganza. Poke bowls of every shape and size, Too Much Sauce, Eat Fresh Kitchen, Beehive Kitchen, gravy laden abominations at KFC, Taco Bell’s Power Menu Bowls, Cauli-Power bowls at Pei Wei, and now multiple locations of South Florida upstart and Central Florida newcomer, Bolay. Bowls, bowls, bowls as far as the eye can see.
Bolay – which I desperately wanted to be a portmanteau for Bowl of Oil of Olay – is actually a mashup of Bowl and ¡Olé! (or “Olay!” as they like to spell it). However, Bolay does get big points with us for dubbing its actual bowls, Bols, which I will go to my grave defending as a homage to the greatest professional basketball player of all time — Manute Bol. No. No. Sssh. Let me have this one thing.
The gist at Bolay? Cafeteria-service fast food with a lot of good-for-you marketing; 100% gluten free, fresh, healthy, chef-inspired, “made with love” (shudder). You get the picture. You basically stand in line at a sneeze guard and choose from a range of pre-prepped bases, proteins, veggies, sauces, and add-ons as a Bolay staffer smiles and ladles your selections into a bowl. It’s like having a tween on happy pills help you at the Whole-Foods-salad-bar, only you get to eatin’ faster and the food is generally better prepared.
What makes Bolay different from other area bowlers? As far as I can tell, Outback Steakhouse money. Bolay CEO Chris Gannon is the son of Outback founder and Bolay cofounder Tim Gannon. Not a knock on Chris. An observation of fact. Bolay has the budget and background expertise to come out of the gates loaded, pro and ready to bowl. It’s bright, polished and benefits from people who obviously know how to market and run a restaurant.
The food? Bolay features a small range of preconfigured Chef Crafted Bols but most folks seem to mix and match custom combos, opting for a Small Bol at $8.29 (1 Base, 2 Veggies, 1 Protein, 1 Add-On, and a Sauce) or a Large Bol at $10.99 (2 Bases, 2 Veggies, 2 Proteins, 1 Add-On, and a Sauce). Certain items are considered extras (Thai Shrimp and Steak Au Jus, for instance) and will add $2.50 or so per item to your total. You can choose to double up on any of your faves, and I’m certain there will be days when black rice and roasted-broccoli-multiplied-by-four will call my name.
Always be prepared. If you’re planning on visiting, here’s a cheat sheet for Bolay’s current combo bowl ingredients (don’t say we’ve never done anything for you):
- Hot Asian Sweet Potato Noodles
- Cilantro Noodles
- Kale Salad
- Orange Basil Quinoa
- Jasmine Rice
- Forbidden Black Rice
- Baby Spinach
- Smoky Cauliflower
- Balsamic Mushrooms
- Ginger Broccoli
- Herb Roasted Potatoes
- Garden Green Beans
- Brussel Sprouts
- Lemon Chicken
- BBQ Chicken
- Pork Tenderloin
- Miso Glazed Tofu
- Ahi Tuna (upcharge)
- Steak Au Jus (upcharge)
- Spicy Thai Shrimp (upcharge)
- Freshly Chopped Cilantro
- Minted Tomatoes
- Parmesan Cheese
- Avocado (upcharge)
- Spicy Thai
- Carrot Ginger
- Cilantro Pesto
Bolay also has the liquids, serving wine and beer, infused ice tea, bottled kombucha and sparkling water. In addition, there’s a fountain full o’ Stubborn Soda which markets its range of bubble stuff as unexpected twists on traditional flavors (think pineapple cream soda or black cherry with tarragon). To us, the unexpected twist is that Stubborn Soda is a PepsiCo product. Its in-yer-millenial-face marketing is bit icky; ripe with images of tattooed chefs and dreadlocked bicycle mechanics. But there is good in the bad: Stubborn Soda is devoid of high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and other nasty business, opting for Fair Trade cane sugar and Stevia to sweeten things up. This means that even sugared drinks come in at a lower calorie point (and almost undoubtedly taste better). It’s a step beyond the effort most fast-casual places are willing to expend and good on Bolay for doing it — even if we’re stubbornly unlikely to ever contribute financially to a “craft” soda fountain owned by one of the largest food and beverage companies in the world. Was that a tangent? Sorry.
Bolay isn’t dining. It’s a delivery vehicle for mainlining nutritious, well prepared food between yoga class and PTA
Our first food experience at Bolay was to-go. What better way to judge its staying power than to see if it could fully satisfy our regular and rigid school night constraints (accessible, cheap, healthy, fast). I went the order-by-number custom bowl route; opting for Thai Shrimp and Tofu with a base of black rice and kale salad. For starters, the kale salad was overdressed and slightly sweet, distracting from other flavors. I enjoyed the tofu and black rice. The shrimp were better than most other franchise-driven, fast-casual alternatives but had a slight iodine aftertaste and texture that had me questioning their provenance (Yes, I was questioning the provenance of fast food). Smoky Cauliflower and Brussel Sprouts were both perfectly tasty and cooked well – each maintaining its firmness, the smokiness of the cauliflower far from overpowering, and the sprouts benefiting from crisped edges. Cilantro Pesto as a sauce option worked well when mixed with the black rice.
Munch had a similar Small Bol without the tofu or rice but with tomatoes with mint (which were lovely).
Our second go’round was during Bolay’s lunch rush and there was a line to the door. I did the pre-configured Thai Bol ($10.99); baby spinach, cilantro noodles, seasonal veggies, ginger broccoli, lemon chicken, pork tenderloin, freshly chopped cilantro, and spicy Thai Sauce. The roasted ginger broccoli was spot on, the pork flavorful, but I found the Spicy Thai sauce a tad too vinegary-sweet and cloying; like a store bought, house brand, “healthy” Thai salad dressing. No pinch of lemongrass or galangal, no kaffir leaf perfume, no real piquancy or kick to speak off.
Go-Kart Romeo ordered black rice, brussels, broccoli, Thai shrimp, and minted tomatoes with cilantro pesto (which we all seem to like). The shrimp were better prepared this go around (a browned edge here and there – the texture more pleasing), but there was still something vaguely disconcerting about them. Certain food just doesn’t taste real to us.
Service at Bolay is friendly but can feel oddly forced at times (“Sshhh. Keep smiling. I think we’re being watched”). During the lunch rush, it can also come off the rails. On our last visit, very young, very eager staffers took our order but quickly began preparing food for the folks queued behind us. It was a variable that did not compute, throwing them off their game and the assembly engine out of whack. They looked at us. They looked at each other. They looked at us. In the meantime, Bols were stacking up. Like Lucy on the factory line. The end result is that we were pushed along to the register and paid for our food without it in hand. No biggie. Done this a jillion times at Chik-fil-A. But our checkout attendant seemed too lost in making sure we were soaking in Bolay’s good vibes to communicate if our food was actually being made, if it would be brought to us, or if we should continue standing at the register as fellow bowlers piled up. We decided to grab a table and returned to the counter a couple of times before returning with food. All of the above was set to a god awfully happy-happy bouncy-bouncy EDM track, making the entire experience feel frenetically Willy Wonka-ish.
Despite our recent review of relatively inexpensive Hunger Street Tacos, local cheapskates have still been on top of us to review even more affordable restaurants. Ta-da: Bolay. Nothing says affordable like food ladled into bowls, even if – surprise – Bolay doesn’t stand out as unusually affordable in the context of fast-casual. A small Bol with one premium item, a large Bol, and a single sparkling water set us back around $27. About what you’d expect to pay for two good sized salad bar takeaways at Whole Foods or for chips and guac, 4 hefty tacos, and a draft craft at Hunger Street. You can get a whole fried snapper and basket of peel and eat shrimp at Lombardi’s for $25. Hummus House is cheaper. Black Bean Deli. King Bao. Dixie Dharma. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there are lots of better options for spending $27 in Orlando than Bolay, and if given the option, we’re doing it. Where Bolay does beat more food-serious places is in terms of quick. Bolay isn’t dining. It’s a delivery vehicle for mainlining nutritious, well prepared food between yoga class and PTA. Between end-of-work and beginning-of-play.
Questions of relative bang-for-your-buck aside, we’ll wrap with what we do and do not like about Bolay. Like? Efficiency. Flexibility. Cilantro pesto. The cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts. It’s a viable and healthy fast food alternative. Don’t like? There are no organic options on the menu. Food sourcing is a bit opaque (particularly meat and seafood). Flavors can be muffled. The vibe comes across a bit like the wellness center at a doomsday cult. But, overall, Bolay is far too easy and healthy-ish for us not to return. It ticks some important non-food related boxes. Plus, there’s bowls.