Ten Great Salads in Orange County

Salads get a bad rap. It's the name: salad. We tend to associate the word with lettuce, usually iceberg, which is flavorless, bland–the antithesis of a steak. For those on a diet, salad is punishment. But perhaps the comedian John Pinette put it best when he said this about salad:

“Salad isn't food. Salad comes with the food.”

But in a lot of cultures other than our own, salad is food. Food is salad. My unproven hypothesis is that the word “salad” exists only in meat-centric societies that needs something to describe a food that contains mostly vegetable.

Herewith is ten great salads, some of which, yes, do contain meat, but all are reasons alone to visit, because salad is food, food is salad.


10. Crispy Catfish and Mango Salad at Thai Nakorn

When you see this dish, you will, no doubt, ask “Where's the catfish?” Indeed, nothing shaped like a fish will be found anywhere in the dish. Not a head, a fin, or even a tail. Instead, dotting the salad will be some golden brown crunchy crumbles that look like Grape Nuts cereal, tangled in the shredded young mango, red onion, and chili. These granules *are* the catfish. Little morsels of it will be strewn about the dish, functioning like fish flavored croutons.  A dressing of lime juice, nuclear chili, sugar, and pungent fish sauce will lace each wispy spoonful of the stuff, its flavors bright and intense. This is a salad you're actually better off eating with rice.

9. Sautéed Mushroom Salad at Cafe Hiro

Like the wonderful steak and unquestionably great croissant bread pudding, Cafe Hiro's sautéed mushroom salad is one of those blackboard specials that has pretty much proven itself worthy of the permanent menu, but still sticks around the specials because it is exactly that: special. You want this salad above any other, for it is a julienne of fungi lightly sautéed with hints of truffle oil and peppiness that will start your Cafe Hiro meal right as that croissant bread pudding will close it.

8. Goi Mit at Quan Hy

The first time I had Goi Mit, I mistook the jackfruit for pork. It chewed like pork, looked like pork, and well, kinda even tasted like pork. But this is a salad, and a great one that demonstrates the wonder that is jackfruit, a vegetable that vegans have embraced as a natural and convincing meat substitute. Those greyish-pink meat- like strands almost look as though it has pig blubber on them. But before you have it in a taco at Seabirds, have it here, where a tart, fish-sauce based dressing and herbs such as lemongrass and and basil cut through it invigoratingly. Best of all will be the planks of light-as-air rice crackers which surrounded the salad mound like life rafts. Depending on how you want to approach it, they function as either crouton or scoop.

7. Classic Salad at Pieology

Some of the servers behind the pizza might be sourpusses in need of better customer service training (see my review) but their classic salad with craisins, candied walnuts, chicken and gorgonzola cheese is as sweet and welcome embrace as anything mostly made of field greens can be. It's served in a to-go box, but you'll finish the thing right then and there, using every last available drop from the thimble of a balanced, not-cloying-for-once raspberry vinaigrette they give you.

6. Lemongrass Chicken Salad at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop

The lemongrass chicken salad at Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop, which has made a name for itself in making salads, makes me people feel good about themselves. Perhaps it's because the restaurant is designed to make its customers feel good about their dietary decision to eat there. There's a working garden outside and non-HFCS soda dispensed in the drink fountains. The place looks like a log cabin built by hipsters. The salad will have chicken, but it will be beside the point. This salad would be good without the chicken. What makes it a great is everything else, including the tender, delicate baby mixed greens, the mango, the grilled pineapple, the jicama, the toasted coconut, the cashews, and most of of all, the lychee vinaigrette that will have hints of Thai chili, Thai basil and the perfume of that magical herb, lemongrass.

5. Chicken Salad at Chaya

At first, Chaya's $5 chicken salad will appear to be the same as every chicken salad you've faced before. There's lettuce, a cut of tomato, some sizzling slices of chicken just seared by a griddle. But then you pour on the dressing that comes in a maple-syrup pitcher. This liquid, friends, is made from miso, sesame and some sort of magic. The blend is able to do the impossible, transforming the insipid into the inspiring. It does the work a great director can do with an ensemble cast of also-rans, making everyone perform at a level they never knew they were capable of and winning awards. The chicken's inherent crispness thrills, while the lettuce and tomato's freshness chills. What ingredients are really in this humble vessel, we might never know. Some mysteries are better left as such.

4. Smoked Ocean Trout Salad at Juliette Kitchen

You'll not have a sharper, more complex plate of food involving arugula than the smoked ocean trout salad at Juliette Kitchen. The nose-tickling smokiness of the flaked fish, the cloying bent of the stewed cherries (or whatever seasonal fruit they have currently) and tartness of pickled onions seem initially at odds with one another, but they somehow end up in harmony. This is a fish salad to redefine fish salads, if there was such a standard.

3. Buttermilk Fried Chicken Salad at Urban Grill & Wine Bar

If you're looking for an excuse to having some really good fried chicken and cornbread, but want to also say you had a salad, get this dish. It's a real salad featuring cucumbers, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and actual lettuce, but yes, there are cornbread torn into chunks, which do not even try to pretend to be croutons. And then there are the chicken pieces, hand-breaded and fried delicately–something so moist that actual juices burst forth. Yes, this is the salad you want if you actually want fried chicken!

2. Truffled Beet Salad at Umami Burger

If you're a vegetarian, you walked in the wrong door (Native Foods is a few yards away), but Umami Burger also happens to produce a surprisingly excellent truffled salad of arugula, beets, almonds and ricotta that should convince you to stay. So do!

1. Tricolore Salad at Mozza

In Silverton's tricolore salad with parmigiano reggiano, an anchovy dressing coats a mountain of arugula, frisée and Belgian endive with such balance that not one leaf loses its snap or is left without flavor. That it deftly manages to shame all caesar salads you've had before is even more amazing when you realize Silverton does it without the use of a single crouton.

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