The 1980s were the Decade of the Salad Bar. It's when Cosmopolitan shouted from the newstands: "10 Salads, 10 Days, 10 Pounds to a Slimmer You!" When model Elle Macpherson advertised 10 reasons to dine at the Burger King salad bar by stretching her "perfect 10" body parts back and forth over broccoli florets and three-bean medleys.
It was the decade my mom toted a plastic calorie counter that featured only three digits — no more than 999 calories was the daily allotment. She spritzed on the vinaigrettes with an atomizer.
In that era of the dieting supermodel, salad bars were like the craft cocktail of today. You couldn't have a self-respecting restaurant without one. As dad went for the steak and potato, mom would be hitting the cottage cheese and the cherry tomatoes if she had any hope of fitting in that wraparound swimsuit next summer.
These days, strong is the new skinny, and animal protein is the new holy grail for the body-conscious. But a woman can't live on elk steaks alone. The salad slingers of today are hanging out in the skyway, reminding you to eat your vegetables. We checked out three of them to see how they stack up.
The Salad Bar: Good
The Salad Bar is the most quotidian of the three spots we sampled, straying little from the hotel sneeze guard islands of bygone times. I almost had an ear out for the click-click of my mom's calorie counter: There were blanched broccoli florets, canned corn and chickpeas, craisins, even sunflower seeds and button mushrooms.
But this is America, 2015. We no longer do things ourselves if we can help it! So, as with all the new salad spots we sampled, you point at the stuff you want and tell the guy to toss it your way. (Or choose one of the signature creations — mostly fusty old faves like "Asian," with slivered almonds and shredded carrot, or a standard Cobb.)
And these salads are chopped, not tossed, meaning after you choose all your stuff, the guy pours it out onto a cutting board and goes all martial arts with a pair of bench knives. Kinda cool to watch and hear. But it only serves to bruise the delicate lettuces, and seems more for style than substance.
We wanted to like a Twin Cities Mega Mix ($9.50), promising iceberg Romaine mix, grilled and crispy chicken, cheddar and pepper Jack cheese, tomato, cucumber, corn, carrot, and green and red pepper.
Yet there was no differentiation between the grilled and crispy chicken, which was neither grilled nor crispy but likely cooked offsite and poured out of a plastic bag. It had that nondescript "protein unit" mouthfeel that lets you know you're eating some sort of spongy white meat. Canned corn and standard issue pre-shredded cheese couldn't really save the day. But the blue cheese dressing was good enough to make it an OK quick lunch to grab on Monday and forget about by Tuesday.
40 S. Seventh St., Minneapolis
Sprout Salad Company: Better
Like a Chipotle for the salad set, Sprout offers an experience where things seem fresher, somewhat more inventive, and a good deal more stylish.
Accompaniments get an of-this-decade update with greens like frisee and watercress, grains like quinoa, and even some hyper-on-trend darlings like kimchee and roasted seaweed. Signature selections are on point, too, with a K-Town that incorporates Korean BBQ steak and spicy gochujang (a fermented Korean condiment) vinaigrette, or a Mexicana with pepitas and pickled red onions.
Sprout goes the extra mile by thinking about what these culinary traditions might actually encompass, rather than just tossing on some crumbled feta and calling it Greek. Moreover, you'll pay no more than two bucks extra over the Salad Bar, and sometimes the price points compare.
Our main gripe with Sprout is it took a few liberties when things were presented as classic — black olives and French dressing on a Cobb, for instance.
It also has seasoning issues. For all the premium product, we still wanted for a generous dash of the most important ingredients — salt and pepper.
Still, with the addition of a house-made Lavash cracker (to heck with you, gluten free-ers!) and scratch-made vinaigrettes, this makes a solid lunch for under $10, especially if you add a fancy lemonade, like blueberry basil, proving healthy is sweeter than it used to be.
555 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
Green and the Grain: Best
While we all like having it our way, a good place knows how to edit, keeping decision making to a minimum and lunch within the proverbial hour. It's only a salad, after all.
With eight signature selections and a reasonable list of add-ons — pico de gallo, prosciutto, blue cheese, avocado — Green and the Grain is like your bespoke salad maker. No polyester blends served here. Just primo stuff. And lots of it. You will pay for all this goodness— about $2 or $3 more than the other joints for a large size — but it's probably worth it.
So generous are the portions, a large salad can be difficult to finish. That said, the proportions are intelligently incorporated, keeping things nicely balanced on the "greens" ratio, so your attempt at a wholesome lunch doesn't turn into a fat-laden cheese-and-meat bomb.
A buffalo shrimp Caesar proved to be filled with gently cooked shrimp — some with telltale tails still attached, hinting at a respectable size, rather than the dreaded "salad shrimp" we all know and abhor. Actual spice accompanied the cooling blue cheese and Caesar vinaigrette. Organic farro kept things firmly rooted in the nutritious zone.
Since every good deed should garner a karmic return in equal measure, have an organic frozen yogurt shake for dessert. You've been so virtuous. You deserve it. They're intelligently sized so you don't blow your calorie count. Besides, four digits' worth will make you grow big and strong, also known as the new sexy.
800 LaSalle Plaza Skyway, Minneapolis
A food truck by the same name can be found in downtown Minneapolis at lunchtime: twitter.com/GreenNtheGrain