- Matthew Schniper
- The Ninja Special Poke Bowl delivers an array of ingredients.
Around the new year, Jae Park opened Ninja Bowl, which followed the launch roughly a year ago of not-far-away Ninja Xpress. Just two years prior to that, the Chicago transplant took over Mobo Sushi off North Academy Boulevard. The natural question is whether more is on the way for Park, but he laughs off the idea and says he’s done for now. Mobo took time to improve, he notes, and he says he’s already considering changing Ninja Xpress to all-you-can-eat sushi (like Mobo, which also has an à la carte option).
Which leaves Ninja Bowl, a simple fast-casual concept constructed around seven “signature” rice bowls, including a few poke options; around 20 sushi rolls; build-your-own bowl or sushi burrito options; and four slightly smaller lunch bowl combos that include a canned soda and side foam cup of basic miso broth for $8.
Ninja Bowl offers serviceable, affordable, familiar fare like you’ve had before at Japanese, Korean or fusion-Asian restaurants. In contrast, the chefs at also-newish International Poke Company off North Gate Boulevard have designed poke bowls that draw from traditional flavors but show more creative, personalizing touches. I had them in mind as I chopsticked through my Ninja Special Poke Bowl, full of diversity with salmon cubes, almost-minced-textured spicy tuna, cucumber, green onion and jalapeño bits, avocado quarters and seaweed salad atop mixed greens dressed in sesame oil. As expected, it eats on the lighter side, but feels “kitchen sink” — flavors not gelling into a greater good beyond their individual real estate holdings. I found myself asking, “Why don’t I like this more?” It’s just... fine, even after the influence of a spicy house sauce (soy spiked with garlic and chiles as I understand it) from a choice of half a dozen.
Location Details Ninja Bowl
I stumble upon one clue as I peer over the glass divider into the array of sixth-pan ingredient containers — cut celery appears beyond opaque, almost gray like a ghost of itself, while what looks like canned pineapple pieces appear to be barely holding themselves together and near a juice state. Only truly fresh ingredients will yield a great poke bowl, and some of these aren’t those.
Better here are the hot items, like a spicy pork (think: bulgogi) dish built on fried rice and spiked with furikake, green and fried onion slices, avocado and corn bits (pleasantly channeling Korean roasted corn tea). Adding a drizzle of spicy mayo and teriyaki gifts welcome creamy and sweet elements. Or the lunchtime spicy chicken bowl, with well-seasoned poultry pieces, to which I add edamame, jalapeño and pickled ginger, plus a hit of yuzu citrus sauce for a vinegar edge.
As sushi goes, Mobo overall shows stronger, if I’m basing that opinion on Ninja Bowl’s Crunch Shrimp roll alone. (I am.) It holds good girth for $12 but too much cream cheese, which overpowers imitation crab and the prawns. Avocado lends more creamy fattiness with the only sharp counterpoint being a fried-onion garnish and teriyaki (which Park subs for the menu’s listed eel sauce, telling me it’s the same thing — huh?).
I fish a can of imported, thankfully unsweetened green tea from a cooler, and read its label: “We present mild body and aroma to you.” That’s lovely for a tea, and a perfect meal pairing, but I can’t help but feel the slogan ends up summing up Ninja Bowl too.