The server gesticulated with one hand, palm up like Vanna White, at the long, geometrically pleasing, fanatically clean salad bar before her. "You get your lettuce and then any five toppings and one dressing included," she said. "You can add more ingredients for 79 cents each, or you can have one of our signature salads."
Dozens and dozens of small hotel pans, filled with ingredients so fresh a food stylist could have kicked back and smoked a cigarette instead of working. If Saladworks--a chain of salad-and-soup restaurants from Philadelphia that's made its first steps into the West Coast with three Orange County locations--is trying to entice patrons with the visual kick of their salad bar, it's working; I immediately created a huge chopped salad in my head, which would have cost me nearly $20 and would have been enough for three people to eat for dinner.
Then, however, the sweep of her arm came to rest on large white plastic plates wedged into the front of the display, carrying examples of these signature salads. My eyes widened in horror. A far cry from the plastic displays so common in Japanese food court restaurants, these were the actual salads, and they appeared to have been created yesterday, or perhaps last Tuesday after the lunch rush. Apples curling and browning at the edges, limp lettuce, chicken glistening with its own condensation.
Don't look at the examples; if you forget and actually do this, try and force your appetite to realize that the salad will be made from the beautiful ingredients behind the Gallery of Regrettable Salad in the front row.
The salad making was a surprise; rather than throwing everything in a bowl, the staff has been trained to take care with delicate ingredients. If you order a salad with mesclun, the toppings will be tossed with the dressing and then set atop the greens; by the time you get to a table, the dressing will have shaken off the toppings and dressed the greens. A custom-built buffalo chicken salad was spicy enough and arrived fresh and perky in the bowl; the only problem was the avocado chunks, which had browned in the pan; these need to be cut fresh from avocado halves. Salade niçoise, while not quite traditional, was just what I wanted; while the Dijon lemon Capri dressing was very sweet, it dressed the tuna perfectly.
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The rest of the restaurant--everything but salads--resembles a Quiznos, and that's not really a compliment; sandwiches come on ciabatta rather than that dubiously flexible wheat bread, but they still go through the same process, still have the same processed taste, still cost about the same amount, and there are still the vats of soup sitting at the end--perhaps useful in Philadelphia, but not so much in warm, sunny California.
The main concern with this place would be the speed; while I was the only patron of the restaurant, it does get busy at lunchtime, and there's limited counter space. Bring patience, or use their online ordering and get the dressing on the side.
Three locations in Orange County: visit their website at saladworks.com.
1500 E. Village Way #2197 (The Village at Orange), Orange; 714-974-3457.
13041 Newport Ave., Tustin; 714-731-7254.
488 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa; 949-646-0800.