My food goal for our summer road trip was to eat a salad for lunch or dinner every day. I wanted to do this mostly because it can be hard to eat enough vegetables when exclusively eating out, and not eating enough vegetables makes me feel gross. More simply, greens > fries.
My husband surprised me by joining in my pursuit, which was great because it made choosing restaurants easier. Unfortunately I didn’t always remember to snap a picture before eating, but we ate a lot of salads from a wide range of places. Fast food salads, fast casual salads, room service salads, sit-down restaurant salads… we tried a bit of everything.
I’m going to start out with the saddest salad I ate on the trip, this Chicken Caesar from the Embassy Suites in Birmingham, Alabama. When I say “sad salad,” I’m talking about that salad you pick up out of the refrigerated section of a gas station with limp, pale lettuce and like one tomato. If you have only ever eaten sad salads, I’m sorry. I don’t usually order Caesar salads because I think they frequently do lean towards being sad, but this was the only salad that room service offered during our stay. The chicken was decent and it did have some nice big parmesan shavings, but that lettuce was so limp and yellow. Sad.
For comparison’s sake, here is another room service order from the Embassy Suites in Amarillo, Texas (I think this was called the “House Salad,” it was the most basic offering and I added chicken). Some nice lettuce goes a long way, and a couple more tomatoes, some croutons, and pickled onions don’t hurt either. I had pickled onions a few times on this trip – I’m not a raw-onions-on-salads person, but pickled onions were a welcomed addition.
Really though, lack of toppings is not what makes a salad sad. The Simple Green Salad from St. Leo in Oxford, Mississippi lives up to its name, and it might be the happiest side salad I have ever eaten. Look at those greens! Quality over quantity, folks!
We stopped at McDonald’s a few times because they are just about everywhere. It had been a while since I had been to a McDonald’s, so I don’t know when it happened, but apparently they updated their salad offerings. I was impressed by this one – the Bacon Ranch with Grilled Chicken – that I tried somewhere in Alabama. The chicken was still warm from the grill and everything else seemed really fresh too.
I think that McDonald’s two biggest shortcomings are lack of variety (they only have two entree salads) and lack of consistency/availability. This salad – the Southwest Salad with Chicken – was from somewhere in rural Arkansas. That McDonald’s actually only had enough to make one salad, and as you can see they subbed in a lemon for the lime. It was still tasty and I am glad I caught the last salad, but definitely be aware of.
The Spicy Southwest Salad (with grilled chicken) is the only salad I get from Chick fil A. There are two other salads on the menu that I have never ordered, which I guess means that I really like this one. It is kind of spicy, so if that’s not your thing then this is not for you. I’ve gotten this salad all over the place and it is *very* consistent.
Of course we sampled just about every salad from Panera too. New-to-me salads I tried included the Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken, Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa, Southwest Chile Lime Ranch with Chicken, and the Strawberry Caprese Salad. The Green Goddess originally appealed to me because it is a cobb salad without blue cheese. As I previously mentioned, I was pleasantly surprised by the pickled red onions, but my favorite part is that they included like half of a large avocado. Avocado lovers know what a big deal that is! The only thing that would have made this better is a crunchy element, maybe some nuts. I suppose that isn’t part of a “true” cobb salad, but I think it would eliminate some of the mushiness that can happen with a cobb salad.
I tried the Modern Greek Salad twice. The first time was a take-out order; I was very impressed by the size and quality of the take-out salad. I have heard people say that you get more when you dine-in, but that was not my experience. In fact, I think that the take-out salad was larger than the dine-in portion I had a couple of weeks later. The Modern Greek Salad is in the least expensive menu category – the same category as the Seasonal Greens, Caesar, and Greek Salads. In my opinion, it is much more substantial than the other “basic” salads and better suited to standing on its own for lunch or dinner, even without adding chicken. As I mentioned, my dine-in salad surprised me by being a bit smaller, but even then I wasn’t starving afterwards.
The Southwest Chile Lime Ranch was my favorite “Southwest” salad from this trip, and maybe of all time. Everything about it is good, especially the plentiful and perfectly ripe avocado and the quinoa tomato sofrito blend. I am pretty sure than this is the same quinoa in the Modern Greek Salad, and although they are two very different salads, the quinoa is a chameleon that blended in seamlessly with both of them. This is one to recreate at home if you are looking to up your salad game! (I might do this in the near future but with the addition of beans.)
Last up for Panera was the Strawberry Caprese. I love Caprese, and this felt like a fresh take on that salad without completely ruining a classic. Strawberries seem like the best fruit they could have chosen for the mash-up – I don’t think it would be as good with say, blueberries, but maybe a peach Caprese would work? Sadly I made the mistake of adding too much dressing and ended up with a borderline-soup situation… and I still ate the whole thing.
The last two salads that I enjoyed on this trip are from smaller, local restaurants. In Albuquerque, we had the pleasure of finding Vinaigrette. This place is the stuff my wannabe-hipster dreams are made of. As you may have guessed from the name, Vinaigrette is a restaurant centered around beautiful, delicious, nutritious salads, and it is unlike any other restaurant I have eaten in. I was not expecting to love this place so much – I was in kind of a sour mood that day, and when we arrived to the restaurant the hostess looked at our three kids, gave us a less than welcoming look, and then set a place at the table with a regular chair (as opposed to a high chair) for our 9-month-old. It was not looking promising. Fortunately for us, our waitress was great (she even brought us a high chair).
There were so many tempting options on the menu, but I decided on The Beet Goes On with Grilled Marinated Baby Artichokes. This is another excellent example of a relatively simple yet powerful salad – it’s just greens, goat cheese, pistachios, beets, vinaigrette, and artichokes. When I say powerful, I mean that it was absolutely fantastic. I still daydream about this salad (not joking) and I when I get an oven again I absolutely plan to try to recreate this positively magical food. I was surprised by a couple of things. First, it was actually a lot bigger than I anticipated. Second, the artichokes specifically were a lot bigger than I expected – the word “baby” had me thinking they would be teeny tiny. I don’t think I have ever purchased fresh artichokes, so that may just be my lack of experience showing.
My husband ordered the Reuben with a side of the Omega, which turned out to be a gorgeous and generously portioned side salad. In case you are wondering, we ordered a mac & cheese for the kids. They did not eat any of the mac & cheese, but they did eat the sliced fruit and veggies that came with it. I wish that we could have ordered more raw fruit and veggies a la carte (that might actually be an option, we did not ask, but it is not on the menu). They also ate the bread that we requested for the table. They did not eat the side of roasted vegetables that we attempted to feed them.
We visited the Albuquerque restaurant, but Vinaigrette has other locations in Santa Fe and Austin, Texas. I wholeheartedly recommend stopping in, or if you are miles away like I am, check out their menu online for a treasure trove of salad inspiration.
The last stop on our trip was San Diego, where we sampled some of Bread and Cie‘s offerings. I think we chose Bread and Cie because we wanted some baked goods and they had excellent reviews, but I wanted to eat a salad before indulging. I deliberated between the Chicken Papaya and Cranberry Goat Cheese salads, and ended up going with the Cranberry Goat Cheese. It was exactly as advertised. Not a groundbreaking salad, but a solid performer and it got the job done before I ate some sweets. I probably wouldn’t seek out Bread and Cie just for salad, but it is a good option if you are there anyway.
Overall, I am really pleased with how my salad challenge turned out. I felt so much better eating this way than how I have eaten on road trips in the past, and just reminding myself of that made it relatively easy to stay on track. Right now I make a big salad for dinner about once a week, and hopefully I can do some more at lunch time soon too. I have probably mentioned before that restaurant salads are where all of my salad for dinner ideas come from, and thankfully this trip has left me with plenty of inspiration to freshen things up for the next few months.