An obituary for Bowllin’

It’s not actually closed. It’s just dead to me.

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Camille Harvell

Bowllin’ restaurant is located on Waverly Place. With new management, a familiar favorite has become unrecognizable. (Photo by ​​Camille Harvell)

By Alexandra Chan, Managing Editor

I was catfished by a restaurant. 

For the uninitiated, Bowllin’ is a Korean barbecue bowls restaurant located right off of Washington Square Park on Waverly Place.

My Bowllin’ journey began September 2019, my first semester at NYU. I ordered a bulgogi bowl with kimchi, gochujang-based sauce and a sunny-side-up egg, and I was ready to put a ring on it. 

I adored Bowllin’. The bulgogi, samgyupsal and budae ramen options were all my favorites. My parents liked to see pictures of what I was eating, and Bowlin’ was always their first guess whenever I wasn’t at a dining hall. I didn’t venture into Koreatown until my first winter break, so Bowllin’ was my consistent, reliable go-to for Korean food. 

I remember deciding that a samgyupsal bowl would be my pick-me-up after a brutal day of finals; I remember splitting a budae ramen with a friend one snowy day during a lunch break from my on-campus job; I remember choosing to get takeout from Bowllin’ the day before I left for quarantine spring break. 

The restaurant was boarded up during the pandemic lockdown, but this semester I passed by it on the way to Silver — the store looked refreshed. Last week, I finally stopped by to check it out.

The physical structure of the business stayed the same. It is still advertised as a Korean barbecue bowl place. The restaurant kept the awning, the dine-in floor plan and the prep station behind a pane of glass. A large poster on the door advertised a free beverage promotion with a purchase of any bowl. 

While I ordered a pork belly bowl and a Sprite can, I was told that the business had changed owners around April of this year, so my stamp card was invalid. Before lockdown, I had a loyalty card that had eight out of the necessary 10 stamps for a free bowl. I mourned what could have been as I took my food elsewhere to evaluate. 

I soon realized that this was no longer the Bowllin’ I had known. 

The grilled pork belly bowl was accompanied by yellow pickled daikon and shredded lettuce on top of rice, all of which were also present in the old samgyupsal bowl, where the pork belly was pan-fried. But cherry tomatoes and a halved hard boiled egg were new. The bowl was missing the gochujang sauce, a fried egg, kimchi and even the serrano peppers. There is also no option to substitute the white rice with anything else they used to offer — purple rice, salad, a mix of both or kimchi fried rice. 

The absence of any flavor in my meal was abhorrent (and no, it wasn’t COVID — I tested negative three times that week). Witnesses say a storm cloud took one look at my face and ran away. They had extra sauce containers on top of the drink fridge for your food, but during pre-COVID times they put sauce in your bowl without asking, plus extras on top of the fridge if you wanted to take some more. How do you make Korean rice bowls without kimchi and gochujang? If the bowl cannot rely on spice, the protein should at least be seasoned. But all I tasted was disappointment. 

There are no LA galbi bowl, jeyuk bowl or ramen choices anymore. Prices also increased, possibly due to pandemic losses or to make up for the beverage promotion. The bulgogi bowl used to be $12.99; now it’s $14.99. Tragic when balanced out against the loss of quality. The take-out bowl is now plastic. It used to be a cardboard bowl that would leak a little bit, but the satisfaction of scraping the rice off of its sides was unparalleled. 

I couldn’t bring myself to finish the whole thing. A bed of limp lettuce and rice was all that remained. 

The restaurant haunts me like a ghost in my camera roll. The website of the old Bowllin’ remains unchanged and the Instagram page says the business is closed. The name continues to live on as a hollow shell of what it once was; the brand cannot sustain its promise to its customers. Gone forever. Dearly missed. 

Contact Alexandra Chan at [email protected]