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Cava vs. Chipotle: Which Serves the Best Bowls?

We tried salads and bowls at both restaurants and the chain serving the fresher food stole the show.

Prognosticators and trend-spotters are always looking for the next great thing. To some, Timothée Chalamet is the next great leading man, Olivia Rodrigo is the next Alanis Morissette, or cruffins are the next cronuts. And speaking of food, much ado has been made about two particular restaurant chains with a penchant for bowls.

For years, Chipotle has reigned as the king of customizable burrito bowls and salads. But change is afoot. While the burrito-wrapping titan still rolls out wildly popular menu additions, there's also trouble in paradise, with rumblings about the chain's apparent fall from grace. Part of that, it seems, can be chalked up to the rise of its emerging rival, Cava.

Increasingly dubbed "the next Chipotle," Cava is growing in popularity—so much so that it has become the fastest-growing restaurant in the nation. While the two have some key differences (namely, Chipotle's emphasis on Mexican flavors, while Cava skews Mediterranean), the myriad similarities in format and business model make them an easy comparison.

I decided to investigate which assembly-line chain serves the best bowls. At each restaurant, I ordered a salad bowl with grilled chicken and a grain bowl with grilled steak. The rest of the accouterments inevitably varied, but there were more than enough parallels for a taste-test throw-down.

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Chipotle's chicken salad in a bowl
Photo: Matt Kiroauc, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per One Salad):
Calories: 740
Fat: 24 g (Saturated Fat: 9 g)
Sodium: 1,780 mg
Carbs: 79g (Fiber: 15 g, Sugar: 6 g)
Protein: 53 g
Photo: Matt Kiroauc, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Burrito Bowl):
Calories: 745
Fat: 36 g (Saturated Fat: 7 g, Trans Fat: 0 g)
Sodium: 1,650 mg
Carbs: 70 g (Fiber: 18 g, Sugar: 3 g)
Protein: 35 g

This was my first time at Chipotle in several years, and it was still as mildly stressful as I remember. The environment is a notable upgrade over lower-run fast-food joints for sure, but it's still relatively stark and — shall we say — weathered. I tend to get a little flustered with build-your-own bowl concepts like this, and it's only compounded when service skews impatient (sorry!). Contrary to some, I found the prices to be very fair, though, especially considering I received heaping portions that could easily spill over into next-day leftovers. They didn't skimp on anything here, so it was a good bang for my buck, though the overall experience still felt a little stressful and cold.

I ordered a salad with grilled chicken, fresh tomato salsa, roasted corn-chili salsa, and cheese for $9.45, as well as a burrito bowl with grilled steak, fresh tomato salsa, brown rice, pinto beans, and guacamole for $13.90 (with an upcharge of nearly $3 for guac).

The look: This was the least salad-looking salad I've ever seen. Granted, that's partly my own fault, considering the whole DIY nature of the ordering process, but from a surface level, this looks more like nacho fodder than anything remotely approaching healthy. The romaine lettuce, in fact, was the biggest afterthought of the bowl, relegated to a smattering of limp leaves buried under the chicken, tomato salsa, and a corn medley that looked weirdly opaque and somewhat sad. I love cheese (hence why I added it), but it adds nothing to the presentation aside from distraction.

The steak bowl, meanwhile, actually looks much more cohesive and vibrant. The huge amount of grilled steak is what jumps out the most (they don't skimp!), along with what looks like an ice cream scoop of guacamole. I asked for a "little" guacamole, but they apparently don't abide by such portion sizes. Everything just looks much fresher and more colorful, albeit indulgent and downright excessive.

The taste: The chicken was fantastic in the salad. It was mildly spicy and smoky and perfectly grilled, with a flavor that lingers and pleasantly smolders. I'd eat a whole bowl of just this chicken. Unfortunately, this wasn't just a bowl of chicken, and it completely overshadowed the rest of the salad, which was — in comparison — immensely lackluster. The greens felt like an afterthought and lent basically nothing to the composition of the dish, while the two salsas were also so bland that they completely disappeared into the smokiness of the chicken. The cheese was barely discernible, weirdly, though it did add a nice layer of creaminess as it (barely) started to melt over the warm ingredients.

The steak bowl didn't perform quite as well despite its promising looks. The steak was decent, albeit somewhat chewy and tough at times. I would have liked more spice or smokiness from the grill, but neither of those came through. It was also at odds with the other flavors, like the guacamole. I don't normally describe guacamole as excessive, but this time, it was — and it felt like a mistaken addition that drowned out the rest of the bowl. Again, the salsa added nothing but a bland pop of color, but the pinto beans lent a nice, mild component of creaminess. At the end of the day, this was a bit of a hodgepodge that lacked cohesion among ingredients.

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Cava's chicken salad in a bowl
Photo: Matt Kiroauc, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per One Salad):
Calories: 490
Fat: 30.5 g (Saturated Fat: 6.5 g)
Sodium: 1,100 mg
Carbs: 14g (Fiber: 5 g, Sugar: 9 g)
Protein: 33 g
cava steak bowl
Photo: Matt Kirouac, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per One Grain Bowl):
Calories: 615
Fat: 26.5 g (Saturated Fat: 5.5 g)
Sodium: 1,285 mg
Carbs: 53g (Fiber: 8 g, Sugar: 5 g)
Protein: 34 g

At first glance, Cava is a noted upgrade from Chipotle. The restaurant is far cleaner and more modern, with more color and design details that make it feel like a sleek, full-service restaurant. The ordering process was still a little confusing and stressful, though service here felt more patient and friendly — even if just by a smidge. Where Cava loses points is on its pricing, which notched a few dollars above Chipotle. But again, portions are still big, so it doesn't feel overtly egregious, at least. Overall, the environment and ordering process was smoother and more pleasant at Cava.

I ordered a salad with SuperFood greens, grilled chicken, Persian cucumbers, tzatziki, pickled onions, and Greek vinaigrette for $10.55, as well as a bowl with brown rice, grilled steak, pickled onions, tomatoes and cucumbers, and lemon-herb tahini dressing for $13.55.

The look: Admittedly, I may have made some mistakes when assembling my salad because it was not the prettiest. The grilled chicken looked great and way fresher than that at Chipotle, but the Greek vinaigrette kind of has a murky, muddy hue that pools around the edges of the bowl in a way that isn't exactly appetizing. Persian cucumbers and pickled onions added a ton of vibrant color, though, and what few hints of greens revealed themselves around the edges seemed to be much better than the limp lettuce leaves at Chipotle. The portion is generous but not as hefty as Chipotle (for better or worse).

As for the steak bowl, things looked much better. The herby dressing stole the show, covering the entire surface area of steak and brown rice, but at least the dressing looked delicious and fresh. The steak, while not nearly as abundant as Chipotle's, echoed that fresh-looking aesthetic, while a dainty dollop of hummus hid in the corner, and bright-pink pickled onions shone through all that dressing.

The taste: The salad, quite simply, tasted great. Much better than it looked at first. Among the SuperFood greens, shredded kale was a wonderful surprise, adding extra crunch and crannies for the dressing to get into. The chicken didn't pop quite as much as in Chipotle's salad, but in this case, it was a good thing. It harmonized far better with the rest of the ingredients instead of overpowering them. The tzatziki was fantastic and matched quite nicely with the vinaigrette and the chicken, too.

The bowl wasn't quite as successful, but it was tasty nonetheless. In general, everything looked and tasted like real food — clearly fresh and thoughtfully prepared. The morsels of steak were occasionally a bit tough, and the flavor was a bit muted, but it still married nicely with the lemon-herb tahini. The rice feels like the biggest afterthought here in terms of both the meager portion and bland taste. Fortunately, the steak and the dressing do all that heavy lifting. What surprised me the most was how tertiary the hummus seemed. I thought it would pair better with steak and tahini, but it mostly just seemed like an ill-fitting addition that didn't meld.

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The Verdict

Despite some minor grievances (the Greek vinaigrette's not-so-pretty appearance, the ho-hum hummus, the bland rice), Cava still earned points where it mattered most: freshness and quality chief among them. I also much preferred Cava for its use of more interesting ingredients, like crunchy Persian cucumbers, shredded kale, and tzatziki. Chipotle, by comparison, feels much more pedestrian — and it looks and tastes the part, too, from the limp lettuce to the shredded cheese that looks like it came from the dairy aisle at Target. Portions may be bigger, and prices may be lower at Chipotle, but Cava is clearly the better choice.

Matt Kirouac
Matt Kirouac is a travel and food writer and culinary school graduate, with a passion for national parks, all things Disney, and road trip restaurants. Read more about Matt