What I Stole from My Local Salad Joint

In the mood for a burger…or a salad? Nutritionally, they’re two diametrically opposite meals, but they represent the latest moderately priced restaurant trends here in Washington, D.C., where I live. About two years ago, salad joints like Chop’t and Sweet Green started cropping up; selling tasty and creative “meal salads”—vegetables balanced with protein, carbs and fat that are an entire meal. On their heels came little independent burger joints selling just burgers, fries and beer. Interestingly, in a few neighborhoods, the burger and salad restaurants sit right next door to each other. To my nutritionist’s eyes, the side-by-side restaurants represent the struggle we all have between eating healthfully and giving into not-so-good-for-you temptations.

Here in D.C., at least, health appears to be winning; by my casual, unofficial observation, the salad joints typically have more customers than the burger joints. Sure, this city trends toward higher income, well-educated people who are pretty health-conscious. But let’s face it—they wouldn’t be buying the salads if they weren’t so tasty. I—and others I know—actually crave Sweet Green’s Chic P (which contains baked falafel) or the Palm Beach Shrimp (with grilled shrimp, avocado and hearts of palm) salad offered Chop’t! The restaurants are sit-down, but not full-service; you order a salad—either one of theirs or your own concoction and watch it being assembled (very helpful for portion control)—then take it to your seat or home with you.

The salads typically run between $8 and $11, which is less than a meal would run you at the burger joints. Still, if you’re looking to save a bit more cash or you don’t have one of these assemble-your-own salad places near you, you can easily make them at home. In fact, I’ve shamelessly stolen ideas from these places when making my own salads at home. Here are some of the nutritious and delicious ingredients that I wouldn’t have thought to use before going to the salad joints; feel free to use one or more to liven up your own salads:

• Spicy quinoa. This fiber-rich whole grain is cooked and tossed with hot pepper sauce.

• Mini baked falafel. Falafel is a Middle Eastern vegetarian burger, which is made with chickpeas and bulgur wheat and seasoned with various spices, such as parsley and garlic. You can buy falafel mixes in health food stores and even in mainstream supermarkets. Beware: Falafel is often served fried, so it loses nutrition points. At Sweet Green, it’s baked, which helps maintain the health value. And serving it up in one-inch rounds, as they do (and you can, too, by shaping the batter into small, flattened balls) makes for a perfect salad addition

• Blueberries! Not your standard salad staple, I found these at a lunch spot in Los Angeles called Greenleaf. Famous for their antioxidant content (in animal research, they help preserve brain cells), a ripe blueberry provides a sweet contrast in a salad.

• Pomegranate seeds. These were another Greenleaf offering, and like blueberries, they’re are loaded with antioxidants.

• Raw beets (diced in tiny cubes). I never realized they’re so sweet when eaten raw, and they add the perfect crunch.

• Crunchy kale. At Sweet Green, there’s a sign warning customers that crunchy kale is addictive, and it’s true: This stuff must hit the same pleasure centers in the brain as potato chips—but it’s actually good for you. They wouldn’t reveal their recipe, but here’s how Best Life chef Sidra Forman makes it: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place 2 cups of thinly sliced kale on a tray and lightly coat with vegetable oil cooking spray, a dash of salt, and black pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. After 5 minutes, add 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, return to oven, and cook for an additional 2 minutes.

• Steamed shrimp. OK, this isn’t so original, but I hadn’t been putting shrimp in my salad on a regular basis. Now I’m much more likely to do so after the “Santorini” at Sweet Green (which also contains feta, grapes and mint). The shrimp comes out of a steamer warm, and slightly seasoned with pepper.

• Fresh mint. I use a lot of parsley in my salads and, in the summertime, fresh basil, but I only use mint on occasion. It goes especially well with grapes (as in the “Santorini, mentioned above)—another staple in these joints.

• Butternut squash. It’s not cooked very long so it’s a little more firm than usual, making it easy to dice without falling apart. But it’s still tender, and seasoned with fresh thyme.

• Smoked tofu. This version is a lot more interesting than just plain tofu. Not to mention, it’s the perfect protein source when you feel like going vegetarian. You can buy it in health food stores.

To make sure your salad doesn’t become a calorie bomb (add-ons like bacon, fried chicken, cheese, and creamy dressings can really tip the scales), check out Build a Healthy Salad. And remember, many of these salad restaurants offer nutrition information on their website—use it before you go to concoct a meal that’s about 450 to 550 calories. Then dig in and enjoy!

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