The year was 1986, the music was the Psychedelic Furs, and the food was the salad bar at Arby's. Ah yes, my friend Linda and I would pile into the ol' Chevy Citation -- a tumble of pink and black and glittering faux rhinestones -- and head down to Arby's for about two hours of gossip and repeated trips to the ice-packed perfection of a carefully maintained salad bar. Truth be told, I have no recollection of what we discussed, but I do remember big crocks of ranch dressing, piles of shredded cheese, and how every trip to the salad bar offered another chance to snag three or four more miniature blueberry muffins.
The '80s were clearly the golden age of the fast food salad. Wendy's was the first to add an all-you-can-eat salad bar to their plant-lined and fake wood-paneled dining establishments, and Arby's quickly followed suit. Soon, places like Rax were springing up all over the place, further blurring the lines between "all-you-can-eat salad bar" and "all-you-can-eat Con Agra feed lot."
But with every boom comes a bust, and the fast food salad nation was no different. In the '90s, the fast food chains all simultaneously realized that their salad bars were enormous, lettuce-lined money pits. Many were removed altogether, Rax vanished from the national salad bar scene, and soon it was back to forlorn little to-go salads in plastic boats. Oh sure, some tried to sex up their salads -- McDonald's "salad shaker" endeavored to make shredded lettuce in a cup as exciting as a martini, or at the very least, a milk shake. But the salad-eaters of America were not that easily duped. "Hey, let's go grab a few salad shakers from McDonald's!" was not a phrase oft heard during the shakers' three-year reign.
But just when it was looking like a delicious, nutritious, fast food salad was not only a thing of the past but a laughable oxymoron, along came McDonald's California Cobb Salad, Jack in the Box's Southwest Chicken Salad and Wendy's Mandarin Chicken Salad.
Released within weeks of one another, the three salad lines -- McDonald's "New Premium Salads," ($3.99) Jack in the Box's "Ultimate Salads" ($4.69) and Wendy's "Garden Sensation Salads" ($4.19) -- are all doing the same thing, and in some cases, the same kind of salad. On a recent Thursday, we rounded up a handful of representative salads from each chain and brought them back to the office for a taste test. The first thing we noticed, as we pulled each salad pod from its large plastic bag and opened each packet of sesame noodles, corn sticks or sour cream, is that our salads were no boon to the environment -- by the time we were done, the plastic pile was voluminous enough to float a small Cuban family to the United States.
But if you're re-using the plastic containers or avoiding daily trips through the drive-thru, you can still feel good about consuming these crispy, fresh and lip-smackin' lunchtime offerings.
McDonald's "New Premium Salads" come in Caesar, Bacon Ranch and California Cobb varieties, with a choice of grilled or crispy chicken on top. All three salad dressings are Newman's Own, and they're a considerable upgrade over your typical dressing packet product. We tried the Caesar and the California Cobb and were impressed with such inspired additions as grape tomatoes, carrot curls, fresh-grated parmesan shreds, real bleu cheese and bacon crumbles, as well as their shared beds of sixteen different savory lettuces. McDonald's also had the least packaging -- there's the plastic bowl for the salad, a packet of dressing, and your de rigueur fast food utensil kit.
At Jack in the Box, we opted for the Chicken Club and the Southwest Chicken. The Chicken Club comes with cucumbers, bacon bits, cheese, almonds, and those cute li'l grape tomatoes. It was tasty, but it paled in comparison to the Southwest Chicken. Topped with black beans, fajita-style chicken and roasted corn -- each one miraculously branded with its own grill mark -- this salad's already got a lot going for it. But throw on the packet of spicy corn sticks and the Southwest ranch dressing, and Se & ntilde;or Salad becomes muy zippy. It's also at least an inch or two larger in diameter than the Wendy's and McDonald's salads.
At Wendy's, we opted for their Mandarin Chicken salad and the Taco Supremo salad. The Mandarin Chicken sports a sort of quasi-Asian sensibility, with a little hint of ginger in the Oriental Sesame dressing along with rice sticks and toasted almonds. The Taco Supremo is just Wendy's yummy ol' taco salad, retooled. Both offered great flavor -- points for toasted almonds, which are tastier than raw -- and the Taco Supremo is fun to put together: You get to layer your corn chips over the lettuce, dump a cup of chili on top and then decorate the whole thing with a dollop of sour cream. Unfortunately, the salads from Wendy's generated the biggest share of discarded packaging. Still, they can't be beat for taste.
All three chains offer nutritional information on their Web sites, and they separate out all the extras so you can decide to forego the calorie-laden stuff if you want to. You'll want to keep an eye on the salad dressings, too -- some of those packets weigh in with as many calories and fat grams as a small cheeseburger. But all in all, it's great to see that the big chains are finally realizing that you can make healthy, fresh salads that are as visually appealing and delicious as they are cost-effective and trendy.