Monday, December 31, 2012

Quest for the Best Salads in Dallas

It probably wasn't a good idea to eat the five Best Burgers in Dallas in four days—right before my holidays full of homemade cookies and western European starch foods—but it does seem like a good idea to follow that up with a weeklong quest to find the best salads in Dallas. I'll be revisiting the most delicious salads I've eaten in the past, plus trying a few new salads, as suggested by fans in my call for suggestions last week.

The Summer Burrata Salad at Fireside Pies is only available in summer,
but it is one of the most unique and delicious salads in Dallas.

Eating nothing but salads for a week isn't any specific or doctor-approved diet, but I know from experience that I tend to lose weight and feel more energetic when I eat veggies and proteins (meats) and cut out starches/carbs and refined sugars. I'm not saying you should eat exactly what I eat and you'll lose weight too, but if you do follow my salad quest and lose weight, I'd love to hear about your success in the comments.

As this is a quest, I will update this page each day so you can discover where the best salads in Dallas are hiding. Be sure to subscribe to this blog under "Free Blog Updates" in the sidebar. I'll also be updating my Best Salads in Dallas Foursquare list so you can save your favorite salads to your Foursquare to-do list. In Twitter and Instagram, follow the hashtag "#DallasSalad" to view all of my salad posts in one feed.

“Salad” Criteria

I don't want to spend a week eating piles of rust-tinged iceberg lettuce with a smattering of mediocre ingredients on top. A salad can be so much better than that, and those are the salads I want to eat.

To be more specific, I am only looking for "salads" whose primary ingredients are non-starchy vegetables. The more fresh, creative, and unique, the better. This rules out mayonnaise-based egg salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, pasta salad, and potato salads. Meats and seafood (proteins) on top of a salad are fair game. I'll taste croutons and included bread items for the sake of writing a complete salad review, but I won't be eating all of them for the sake of my weight loss goal.

Select a Salad:

Day 1 Lunch: “Caesar Entree Salad with Grilled Fish” at TJ's Fresh Seafood Market

Tasting Notes:
  • Creamy, garlicky, anchovy Caesar dressing, made in house with fresh anchovies (duh, it's a fish market) and heavily coated with grated Parmesan cheese. It's everything I hope for in a Caesar dressing.
  • Croutons taste like the bread spent all day soaking in garlic butter before they got toasted and bathed in Caesar dressing. There's so much butter and dressing on them, I don't know how they are still crisp. Heavenly! Combo of rye and white bread.
  • Bite-sized chopped green leaf lettuce. No knife needed, so you can quickly devour it.
  • Comes with a grilled half of a lemon. I love the mellow flavor the lemon gets from the grill.
  • Topped with freshly grated lemon zest and curly strings of green onion. Can't really taste them, but they're pretty.
  • Your choice of fresh fish, flown in daily, from their fish market case. The fish is salted and grilled to moist, flakey perfection.
  • Price: depends on which fish you get, from $11-19 per salad on the day I was there. The red snapper I ate was outstanding.
  • Portion size: Just the right size for a meal. I came hungry, ate every bite, and was comfortably full.
  • Rating: A+
Very similar tasting salad: Caesar at Angelo's Spaghetti House (sans fish)

Day 1 Dinner: “Buttermilk Fried Chicken Cobb” at The Porch

Tasting Notes:
  • As I learned from Alton Brown's "Good Eats", buttermilk fried chicken is the tastiest method. It's moist, tender, and theirs is slightly salty, which is great on a salad.
  • I substitute the Toasted Honey Mustard Dressing it comes with for ranch dressing. They make an excellent ranch, and in my opinion there is no better dressing for bacon, tomato, and chicken. 
  • Pretty row-by-row presentation
  • Very sweet, ripe grape tomatoes, sliced in half 
  • Ripe avocado chunks
  • Applewood smoked bacon bits add a slightly smokey flavor
  • Blue cheese crumbles (under the chicken) 
  • Bite-sized spring mix lettuce 
  • Pre-tossed in dressing for ease of enjoyment. 
  • They have a few other salads that look really delicious and unique, but I like this one so much I can't bring myself to try the others yet.
  • Price: $16
  • Portion size: Always comes with tons of chicken bits. I never leave hungry, and that justifies the entree price to me.
  • Rating: A-
Very similar tasting salad: Lark Creek Chicken Salad at Dream Cafe

Day 2 Lunch: “Galinha Assada a Brasileira” at La Duni

My salad quest today took me to three restaurants that weren't able to serve the salad I was looking for. I was starving, so I went to the nearest respectable restaurant, which happened to be La Duni. There I tried a salad that sounded unique and delicious, and I was not disappointed!

Tasting Notes:
  • No lettuce, but there are a lot of chopped "vegetables", which turned out to be green beans and peas. There were not enough veggies to meet my official "salad" criteria, but hey, I didn't know until I tried it.
  • The "Brazilian style pulled roasted chicken" is moist and appropriately bite-sized.
  • No hint of lime flavor in the "creamy lime dressing", but it comes with two lime wedges so you can squirt as much lime flavor as you like. I appreciate the flavor control.
  • The menu mentioned cilantro as an ingredient, but I didn't notice any.
  • Two quarter pieces of an unripe tomato slice. I know it's January, but I had tons of ripe tomatoes on a salad just yesterday (see above). I also would have liked more tomato. Two quarters of a slice looks sad.
  • Crispy potato strings on top, which gives a great salty crunch to every bite. It's like ordering a traditional chicken salad with a side of potato chips, except the chips have been conveniently crumbled into every bite. I'm all for efficient eating and even flavor distribution!
  • Their menu features a whopping ten salads that represent a wide variety of what a "salad" can be, including red quinoa or warm basmati rice. I'm excited to try more of these.
  • Price: $13.95
  • Portion size: I can't imagine eating more chicken and potato chips in one sitting. I was starving and left comfortably full.
  • Rating: B+

Day 2 Dinner: “Warm Goat Cheese Salad” at Capitol Pub

Tasting Notes:
  • Not a restaurant where I expected to find a good salad menu, but they make all of their dressings in house and use non-standard salad ingredients, like fried capers, jicama, and wasabi.
  • Restaurants usually skimp on goat cheese, but not here. Looks like a whole package of goat cheese was rolled in herbs and panko breading, then lightly fried and served warm. 
  • Housemade vinaigrette dressing made with Lindemans Framboise beer adds a lightly sweet, strong strawberry flavor. 
  • Dried cherries compliment the strawberry flavor in the dressing and add a contrasting texture to the salad.
  • Spring greens add some bitterness to offset the sweet fruit flavors, but the leaf size was a bit unwieldily to eat without cutting.
  • Toasted pecans probably add a nice crunch, but I eat it without them.
  • Worth noting: On two separate occasions I've had dining mates order their "Seared Rare Tuna Salad"and proclaim it one of the best of many ahi tuna salads they had ever eaten. Subsequent visits with the same people resulted in the same comment. The plate presentation is impressive, but I've never tasted it.
  • Price: $9.00. A good deal when you realize some packages of goat cheese cost this much alone.
  • Portion size: It's entree size, but fairly light on the stomach. Perfect if you're not super hungry.
  • Rating: B

Day 3 Lunch: “Grilled Asparagus Salad” at Kona Grill

Tasting Notes:
  • Thanks to the multiple fans who brought this stunningly beautiful and unique salad to my attention! 
  • It's such a sculptural work of food that no one photo angle could capture it all.
  • The plate is drizzled with balsamic dressing, then layered with still-warm grilled onion and grilled tomato slices, piled high with a mound of lettuce, supported by two goat cheese crostini, then pierced with grilled asparagus in a fan arrangement for lots of flavor.
  • Thick slices of red onion are grilled to reveal a caramelized sweetness.
  • Thick slices of grilled tomato are warm and mushy.
  • Grilled asaragus is thoroughly cooked.
  • Two long, lightly toasted crostini sticks are smeared with goat cheese chock-full of herbs and a bit of garlic. 
  • Spring mix is pre-tossed in a very lightly sweet "honey balsamic" creamy dressing. 
  • As usual the spring mix is a bit awkward to eat without slicing some pieces.
  • Price: $10.75
  • Portion size: The large heap of lettuce plus veggies of substance left me comfortably full.
  • Rating: A+

Day 3 Dinner: “Arugula Salad” with Lamb at Ketchup Burger Bar

Tasting Notes:
  • Wow, I haven't eaten lamb this moist and flavorful outside of the elusive perfectly cooked lamb chop at a fine dining restaurant. 
  • The lamb meat is ground fresh in house, then combined with cilantro and other seasonings to make a lamb burger, cooked to your desired doneness. 
  • Figs sliced in half add a mellow sweetness. It's a classically delicious flavor paring with lamb.
  • Abundant gorgonzola cheese crumbles dominate the bites that don't contain lamb or fig, and their tiny size makes them difficult to push aside. Gorgonzola fiends will be pleased.
  • Chopped slivers of green apple get lost in the flavor mix. I think the salad would be improved if you could taste the apples.
  • Spring mix lettuce that is chopped bite size for you—yay!
  • Housemade balsamic vinaigrette plays a distant supporting role.
  • A minor drawback is that you have to cut the burger into bites. If the meat was crumbled over the whole salad after the patty was cooked, then the lamb juices could mix with the other ingredients and it'd be easier to eat.
  • Compose a bite with all of the ingredients for a little taste of heaven. If only the whole salad had enough ingredients to taste like that.
  • Alternately, you can order beef, chicken, salmon, or turkey instead of lamb, and they have two other unique salads you can order with meat.
  • Price: $9 Arugula Salad + $6 to add lamb = $15
  • Portion size: Regular size burger patty, but a smallish amount of lettuce for an entree salad.
  • Rating: A-
Other restaurant with excellent burger salads: Stackhouse (see Best Burgers in Dallas 2012)

Day 4 Lunch: “Company Cobb” at Company Cafe

Tasting Notes:
  • "Chipotle aioli" mayonnaise-based dressing tastes similar to a southwest ranch with a spicy kick.
  • Grilled chicken is thoroughly coated in fresh herbs, which adds a tremendous flavor.
  • The dressing and chicken together make this salad really standout from other cobbs.
  • "Organic greens" spring mix pieces are bite-sized. The organic quality doesn't taste different to me.
  • Tomato slices weren't very red, but they didn't taste bad.
  • Real bacon bits were hiding underneath the other toppings.
  • Blue cheese crumbles didn't overpower the other flavors.
  • Ripe avocado
  • I don't know if their hard-boiled egg tastes fresh because it's cage-free or because it was cooked perfectly, but I don't think a hard-boiled egg could taste better than this.
  • The ingredients on top are displayed in a pretty, fanned arrangement, but they're in large chunks that you'll probably want to cut before you eat.
  • Price: $13
  • Portion size: Comfortably full entree size
  • Rating: B

Day 4 Dinner: “Roasted Beet” Salad at Bolsa

Tasting Notes:
  • The "roasted beets" tasted like the plain, boiled beets my mom made when was a kid. I was expecting more dynamic flavors in a roasted beet salad from Bolsa, but seeing as this is my eighth salad in four days, I was happy to not be eating green lettuce again.
  • The included pistachio nut brittle crumbled on top probably would have made this salad a little more interesting, but I can't eat nuts, so I had to order and photograph it without. Still, they brought me some on the side so I could see and smell, and the translucent little amber crystals looked beautiful against the deep magenta color of the beets. Brittle would have added a crunchy texture contrast and a bit of sweetness to the soft beets, so I imagine I missed out on something more than a pretty garnish.
  • Mandarin orange slices were almost unnoticeable in both color (the beet color rubbed off on them) and flavor.
  • Chopped radicchio wasn't noticeable in flavor, but I'm not sure I would want it to be. The wiggly line of white added a fun design and a fresh crispy texture. 
  • Feta cheese crumbles weren't a strong enough flavor to match the beets, but it added nice pop of white color. 
  • Chopped fresh mint (not mentioned in the menu description) added to the flavor depth and nicely contrasted against the beet color. 
  • Price: $9
  • Portion size: Wasn't quite a full meal portion, but I don't think most people would want to eat more beets in one sitting.
  • Rating: B-

Day 5 Lunch: “Serrano Caprese” Salad at Salum

Tasting Notes:
  • Serrano ham made this caprese salad stand out from other capreses, but there were only three small slices— not enough to get ham flavor in every bite.
  • Tomatoes were ripe in color, but not particularly flavorful or sweet.
  • "Fresh Mozzarella" was also bland. A moist, salty mozzarella would have helped compensate for tomatoes being out of season.
  • The layered composition of three each tomato and mozzarella slices made it easy to cut and eat a little of everything in one bite (except that ham). It also looked cool.
  • Laid on a bed of spring mix, whereas many other capreses leave out lettuce.
  • Your choice of drizzle in balsamic vinegar, olive oil, pesto, or all three. Get all three for max flavor. None of the three were particularly flavorful on their own.
  • Bonus salad in the photo background: caesar with two anchovies laid over a large parmesan crisp. It looked good, but I didn't get to taste it.
  • Price: $9.50
  • Portion size: Probably was intended to be a large side salad. I had to order more food.
  • Rating: B-

Day 5 Dinner: “TD Fajita Salad” at Taco Diner

Tasting Notes:
  • Turns out it's not really a "fajita" salad, it's a plain, boring salad with meat on top. To me, a "fajita" salad has to come with grilled peppers and grilled onions, and maybe sour cream and/or guacamole, and bonus points for including a tortilla, crumbled chips, or a shell.
  • The menu does not describe what comes on the salad outside of "grilled chicken or beef", so I asked the waitress if it included other ingredients, "like tomato and onion", and she said yes. Perhaps in her broken English she didn't understand what I had asked.
  • I ordered beef. It was sliced in very thin, wide slices and cooked perfectly to a tender, medium pink. The seasoning had excellent flavor. Extra slicing was, however, necessary.
  • Sweet, ripe tomato wedges flanked the sides for an appealing presentation. 
  • Choice of any dressing, including chili garlic, southwest, ranch, and other more interesting-sounding dressings. Problem is it comes on the side so you have to toss the huge salad yourself, and there wasn't nearly enough dressing. 
  • Very sparsely sprinkled with freshly grated cheese.
  • Iceburg lettuce, meh.
  • Minuscule amount of bacon bits on top, and for once I'm thankful for that. The few bites that contained bacon had a distinct, nasty flavor that I couldn't quite match to the right flavor memory... "Was that burnt bacon, bacon cooked in old burnt grease, rancid bacon, Denny's bacon, or that time I ate a piece of free hotel breakfast buffet bacon still in the warming tray five minutes before they closed?" I tried not to contemplate that answer too much.
  • After the delicious steak was gone, I was too bored with the other flavors to bother asking for the extra side of dressing I would have needed to eat the remaining half of the lettuce. It's not often I leave half a meal on the table when I'm still hungry. 
  • Longtime Dallas Foodie fans may have difficulty remembering the last time I posted a photo from a Taco Diner… because I avoid eating here. And after this meal, it will be a long time before I eat at a Taco Diner again. Not because their food is normally as inedible as today's bacon, but because there are too many other Dallas restaurants making much tastier versions of similar food. To my fans who recommended the salads at Taco Diner, please keep following me to discover those places.
  • Price: $9.00
  • Portion size: Entree size, but I wasn't enjoying it enough to eat more than half of it.
  • Rating: C+

Day 6 Lunch: “Asian 'Field Green' Salad” at Marquee Grill

Tasting Notes:
  • I took a chance on their "Crab Cake Salad" today, while I recommended my dining mate try this Asian Field Green Salad that I loved when I ate it a few months ago. We agreed the Asian salad is more flavorful, so I'm reviewing that one…
  • Very generously portioned with giant pieces of sweet crab meat. It should be named the "Asian Lump Crab Salad"!
  • Lemongrass dressing is bright and refreshing, with a hint of spicy. It's a welcome change from the standard dressing flavors at most restaurants.
  • Pile of crispy wontons on top adds a great crunch and slight fry flavor.
  • Field greens were bite-sized.
  • Thin strips of veggies, including English cucumber and carrots, added color and texture.
  • Price: $15.00
  • Portion size: Entree size.
  • Rating: A-

Day 6 Dinner: “Pappasito's Salad” at Pappasito's

Tasting Notes:
  • This is the fajita salad I've been dreaming about! It'd been over three years since I last ate it, and it's still as good as I remembered…
  • Choice of fajita chicken, fajita beef, or grilled shrimp. The beef is perfection— cooked to a tender medium rare, with intense flavors beyond plain beef. The menu says their meats are "grilled over mesquite fire", and you can literally see and smell the smoke from the parking lot. I think it tastes like it was marinated in sherry wine and a generous amount of salt. I love it.
  • It comes with raw onions, which I specially requested to have caramelized as they are with their fajita entree. They had no problem doing this, and it was soooooo worth it. They do a thorough job of caramelizing onions, and it adds tons of flavor to the salad.
  • Choice of dressing, but the house "spicy ranch" is a standout. It's not at all spicy, but rather garlicky and full of minced herbs. Order extra and apply liberally. Avocado lovers may prefer their "avocado ranch", but I've never tried it.
  • The menu description says only "field greens and garden vegetables". Turns out that includes a HUGE medley of ingredients:
    • Semi-ripe avocado wedges 
    • Ripe tomato wedges 
    • Green and black olives, which I normally don't like when they come out of a metal can, but these didn't taste like that. I actually liked them.
    • Large chunks of raw button mushrooms—not sure what those were doing in this salad. 
    • Chopped green leaf lettuce 
    • Shredded cheddar or monterey jack cheese; there was too little to taste.
    • Tortilla strips on top
    • Cotija cheese crumbles that didn't add any flavor, but looked nice.
  • Price: $12.95 for the "small", $14.95 for a "large". It's the best value for the flavor and quantity I've had so far in this quest.
  • Portion size: Order the "small" salad; it's a huge entree portion! I couldn't finish it— not even close! But trust me, I wanted to.
  • Rating: A

Day 7 Lunch: “Watermelon and Arugula Salad” at Sangria

Tasting Notes:
  • I ended up here due to a last minute group meal decision, so I felt lucky to find a unique salad on the menu. Unfortunately it was on the daily specials menu, so I'm not sure if this salad would always be available. Their regular menu salads looked decent, just not as unique as this one.
  • An all-around delightful and refreshing salad. 
  • All of the watermelon on my salad was ripe, with average sweetness for a watermelon. I was happy none of the rind was included.
  • Micro arugula lettuce has a slight bitterness that balanced the slight sweetness of the watermelon.
  • Balsamic vinegar reduction served the primary purpose of a plate decoration; there was too little on the salad to notice the flavor.
  • Large chunks of feta cheese added a fresh, clean cheese flavor. Smaller chunks wouldn't have been very noticeable on the palate.
  • Pickled red onions added a slight hint of sweet and tart.
  • Price: I think it was $9, but the itemized bill wasn't included in my final billfold, and it was too difficult to find our waiter to ask. The service was so incredibly slow that we didn't even know who our waiter was for most of the meal.
  • Portion size: I ordered the larger of the two "tapas" sizes available, which was, by definition, not quite entree size. I was so hungry by the time the food arrived that I wasn't hungry anymore, so it was difficult to judge how filling it would normally be.
  • Rating: A-

Day 7 Dinner: “Duck Salad” at The Libertine Bar

Tasting Notes:
  • "Sautéed duck confit" was warm, tender, moist, and full of delicious fat flavors. They didn't skimp on the portion size, but I would have liked more duck. :-)
  • Drizzled in balsamic reduction, which and thickens the balsamic. It was rightly used very, very sparingly.
  • "Celery confit" was browned and still half-crunchy. It tasted excellent with the balsamic drizzled over it.
  • Roasted green grapes. Roasting seemed to concentrate the sugars because the grapes tasted like candy.
  • "Arugula and radicchio mix" was nicely chopped and the perfect type of lettuce for this salad because the bitter flavors helped balance the concentrated sweet ingredients.
  • Large chunks of "Maytag bleu cheese", but not so much that it overpowered any of the other flavors.
  • Comes with candied walnuts, but they only had plain walnuts today. No matter to me, I don't like walnuts and the salad already has several candy-sweet ingredients, so I don't think they were needed. 
  • With so many strongly-flavored ingredients in one salad, it would have been easy for one flavor to overpower the rest, but they balanced the ingredient ratios very well.
  • Thanks to a fan for recommending this unique salad!
  • Price: $14
  • Portion size: On the lighter side of an entree portion.
  • Rating: A

What I Learned on This Quest

  • Finding a unique salad that isn't a caesar, cobb, or garden salad with grilled chicken on top is not easy.
  • Eating lettuce every day gets boring, even when I mixed it up with watermelon and beets.
  • Most good salads include a crumbled cheese, either goat, feta, or blue, and that got old fast.
  • It doesn't take much blue cheese to overpower the rest of a salad, and most restaurants haven't figured this out.
  • Just because tomatoes are locally out of season in the winter, doesn't mean you can't find salads with really ripe tomatoes.
  • I kept finding myself at Northpark Center; they have a very high concentration of restaurants with great salads.
  • I have a list of other fan-recommended salads to try in Dallas, and I will be trying them soon. I won't be reviewing them in detail in this blog, but I will add the goods ones to my Best Salads in Dallas Foursquare list and hashtag them with #DallasSalad on Instagram and Twitter.
  • Eating 14 salads in 7 days lost me 2 pounds. Yay!

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