A Khao San Noodle bowl from The Garden Bar, a build-your-own bowl restaurant that opened in Biddeford in early May. Photo by Tim Cebula

The Garden Bar, a design-your-own salad and bowl restaurant, opened in Biddeford’s Pepperell Mill campus this month. Judging by the lunchtime crowd there on a recent Wednesday, I wasn’t the only person around eager to try it.

Located in the airy, high-ceilinged lobby of Building 13, The Garden Bar was cranking out orders when I visited. Their customers seemed to occupy much of the the shared lobby space seating (two large communal tables and four two-tops), with more standing by in the lobby, waiting for to-go orders.

The build-your-own-bowl concept has gained a lot of traction in recent years – another, Boka, opened over the winter in Old Orchard Beach – and for good reason: These fast-casual spots offer plenty of options to suit your mood or dietary restrictions, with a long list of fresh, healthy ingredients to choose from.

The Garden Bar’s menu features an extensive list of about 30 hot and cold components, including bases of salad greens and grains like quinoa, jasmine rice and Thai rice noodles; toppings of cold and cooked veggies or crunchy seeds, nuts and croutons; proteins such as mojo pork, Southwest chicken and smoked pork belly; and dressings like chive ranch, Caesar and honey buffalo. You can design your own bowl for $16, or choose from one of six $15 signature bowls.

I was in a hurry the day I visited, and so opted for one of the signature bowls, not feeling like taking the time and thought to put together my own. I ordered the Khao San Noodle Bowl ($15), which comes with a rice noodle and romaine lettuce base, topped with sweet potato, kung pao veggies, vegan hoisin meatballs and toasted sesame dressing.

As I placed my order with the cheery server, several more customers arrived and started scoping out menus. My order was ready in about five minutes, a truly impressive turnaround for a new restaurant staffed by two people in the middle of a lunch rush.


All the components of my bowl are served chilled, and none of it suffered during the trip home. The range of flavors and textures in the dish was quite pleasing, with crisp lettuce, crunchy diced veggies and peanuts balancing the tender, almost creamy roasted sweet potatoes and chewy rice noodles.

The vegan meatballs that lend the dish its dose of protein were better than a lot of ersatz meat I’ve tasted. They were a little more firm and dense than I’d like, but they tasted enough like pork sausage with a hint of fennel seed to be satisfying, and they were coated in sticky-sweet hoisin sauce, complementing the other Asian flavors in the dish.

The Kung Pao veggies, including diced carrot, celery and red bell pepper, weren’t overly assertive in flavor but still brought some spicy heat to the background. My bowl had plenty of fresh cilantro leaves and sliced radish scattered around as well, delivering herby, bright flavor and extra crunch, and the toasted sesame dressing brought subtle acidity.

The portion was ample enough to make two lunches out of my bowl. Next time I visit, I’ll give myself enough time to try designing a bowl of my own. The Garden Bar also sells cold-pressed juices from Everyday Boost in South Berwick, $10 for 12 ounces or $5 for a shot.

Between their bustling midweek crowd and my tasty, satisfying meal, I think The Garden Bar may be in for a very busy summer.

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