A search for a standout Peninsula salad yields up-and-down outcomes.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Ah, Monterey County: replete with greens, so-called salad bowl of the world, seemingly the perfect place to feast on a heaping helping of arugula with fresh toppings and a from-scratch dressing. Right? Alas, it’s not so. Even though lettuce is as easy to find on Salinas Valley farmland as sea lions are in the bay, county restaurants come up short on salad, especially for the time-crunched lunchtime crowd.
I’m sorry, romaine hearts with a touch of tomato do not a special salad make. It’s especially rough if you work in Seaside, and can’t go more than 5 miles afield for a lunch break most days – which is fine if it’s a bomb burrito or sandwich shop you’re after, but not so hot if you really got to have your greens.
I set out on a mission to figure out where quality salads could be found within a limited lunch hour, aided by the advice of Twitter followers, Weekly readers, and our formidable food team.
First I cycled over to Schooners Bistro on the Bay (372-2628) on the recommendation of the Twitteratti (thanks, #Monterey followers).
In addition to the breathtaking bay view, the servers were knowledgeable and attentive. And, more importantly, the salad was splendid. I enjoyed the arugula and beet salad ($9), with fresh (and local) Earthbound Farm organic greens, sweet, earthy golden beets, perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes and a goat cheese croquette, all tossed in a subtle yet flavorful tarragon vinaigrette.
Its appeal lay in its simplicity, with a small (but quality) assortment of ingredients allowed to shine. Best of all, this was no skimpy salad; it made for a satisfying meal on its own.
Sometimes, I crave a good salad sans greens, and Happy Girl Kitchen Co. (373-4475) delivered. Happy Girl’s known for its fresh, organic ingredients, and the dry-farm heirloom tomato salad ($4.75) was bursting with flavor as only a farm-fresh dish can be.
The tender, juicy tomato slices (from Live Earth Farm in Watsonville) were complemented by a drizzle of olive oil and some sweet basil topped with a generous serving of house-made herbed goat cheese. The hints of rosemary in the chevre mingled nicely with the sweet basil, but neither overpowered the star of the show.
While Happy Girl’s salad options are limited, their focus on quality over quantity yields memorable meals that make you forget the myriad selections of a big salad bar. Or at least until lunchtime the next day, when I found myself craving greens, beans, fruit, nuts, cheese and maybe some sliced boiled egg all on the same plate. I knew that Whole Foods (333-1600) could always be counted on for organic greens and a mind-boggling variety of tasty toppings, but I’d heard so much about Weekly Best Salad Winner Crazy Horse (649-4771) that I decided to ditch my Del Monte Center standby and see if our readers’ favorite salad bar lived up to the hype.
Crazy Horse’s salad bar ($10.95) offers an impressive spread of options, from numerous sliced veggies to a host of mayo-based salads (macaroni, egg, potato) to plop atop or aside your greens. (Soup and bread are also available, but I passed on them to save precious stomach space.) None of the bells and whistles matter as much, however, if your bread and butter – in this case, your bed of greens – isn’t satisfying.
Unfortunately, the lettuce, spinach and baby greens laid out by Crazy Horse were flavorless and limp, and no amount of dressing or dried fruit could mask their mediocrity. I finished quickly, and left full but unsatisfied.
Weekly insiders insisted I check two other spots: The salad bar at Jacks Restaurant (649-2698) and Wild Plum Café, Bistro and Bakery (646-3109).
Jacks did not disappoint. Fresh sliced veggies? Check. Plenty of protein for carnivores and vegetarians? Check. At $11.95, it seemed a bit steep for a salad bar, but then again, I had my choice of over 20 toppings, pasta salad and fruit salad on the side, two soup options and a $2 locals discount to boot. Was it spectacular? No, but it was solid, nutritious and kept me full till 5. Mission accomplished.
I’d been avoiding Wild Plum (646-3109) since a sad Caesar experience a few months back, but based on the rave reviews from my grub guides I gave the cafe a second chance. The Super Natural Salad ($8.75) made me a believer: sauteed red peppers and onions, shaved carrots, sliced cukes, ample avocado, and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan atop a bed of great Happy Boy greens. Fresh, flavorful, filling: The trifecta was mine.
Two overlooked spots also furnish worthy rabbit food within a few minutes’ drive. Balesteri’s (373-3701) at Laguna Seca Golf Ranch is a bit off the beaten path (or, more accurately, up a windy hill), but its $9.95 salad bar is worth the trip. Its spread is nearly identical to Jacks’, but the bountiful fresh fruit and less-common-but-tasty toppings (pumpkin seeds, anyone?) win out. Jersey’s Subs (899-7677) in Sand City, meanwhile, proffers four choices of greens, including spinach; eight dressings; about 30 different toppings; basic fruit, macaroni and pasta salads; and individually wrapped squares and 3-inch rolls baked on site for $7.95.
Despite all the discoveries, I’m still left craving more creativity, some unexpected and inventive combinations that don’t just satisfy but excite. Fortunately, if I think I can one-up the Peninsula’s salad chefs, I have ample opportunity to try with ingredients from a host of local farmers markets. But aspiring restaurateurs, take note: There’s a real opportunity for a salad-centric spot this side of the lettuce curtain.
Send your top salad spot recommendation to firstname.lastname@example.org; nominees will be published in the Edible column in coming weeks. For a look at the area’s farmers markets, visit www.mcweekly.com/edible.