After December's windfall of sugar cookies, sufganiyot, stollen, and panettone, January greets us with a less appetizing baked good - the post-holiday muffin top. And thus, like so many Americans, we're engaging in a little New Year's penance, going from the reds and greens Christmas M&Ms to those of tomatoes and arugula.
Luckily, the burgeoning fast-casual salad trend has provided us with a bevy of salubrious options, and so in honor of our resolve to be healthy at least part of the time, we waged a battle of the make-your-own-salad joints, promising to limit ourselves to wholesome, nutritious ingredients (sigh.) Turn the page for today's food fight: Simply Salad vs. Freshii.
Our first stop was Simply Salad, a clean, modern space a few blocks from L.A. Live. Though busy downtown denizens can order online, we opted for the more personal approach, wanting to see first hand how these guys toss their greens. Visitors move down the line Chipotle-style, choosing a salad base from a range of roughage before selecting toppings - the basic $6.00 salad comes with four simple toppers (this includes most veggies, as well as eggs, legumes, and some fruit and nuts.) For an additional charge, diners can throw on extra simple toppings or upgrade with premium toppings (think asparagus, avocado, dried cherries) or a variety of meats, cheeses, and seafood.
Ever the virtuous, we went for a mix of vitamin rich fruits and veg (tomatoes and carrots) and lean proteins (roast turkey and edamame) with hearts of palm, corn, and red onions thrown in for added flavor and crunch. We maintained our restraint by dressing our salad with a fat free pomegranate vinaigrette and felt smug in our resolve when the man behind the counter complimented us on our "unique" but "really healthy" selections.
The resulting salad was perfectly tasty - particularly well-tossed, thanks to a run in with a mezzaluna, which left all of the ingredients relatively uniform in size. Most of the vegetables were fresh tasting, though the tomatoes had a little of winter's mushy graininess. The turkey breast was tender and well seasoned and the dressing though in need of a bit more acidity, lacked the cloying sweetness that so often plagues fruity vinaigrettes. We also enjoyed the crunchy pita toasts that came with the salad (we only ate one, we swear.)
Next stop, the Farmer's Market to visit the city's third branch of Freshii, the rapidly expanding Canadian fast-casual chain. The new outpost is much larger than L.A.'s other two, with plenty of seating inside and a few tables outside. Unlike at other make-your-own salad eateries, instead of ordering as you move down an assembly line, here preternaturally friendly greeters help you mark your salad preferences on menu cards, and since Freshii allows you to choose as many basic toppings as you want, we went wild, topping our mesclun mix with carrots, broccoli, celery, diced tomatoes, and red onions. For an extra two bucks, we added teriyaki chicken, which the Freshii website told us was a mere70 calories. For dressing we tried two of the light options (on the side, of course) - the cucumber dill and the medium salsa.
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The concoction that emerged lived up to Freshii's name; the vegetables were crisp and bright tasting, and there was a generously high toppings to lettuce ratio, which sated our hunger more than a standard greens heavy affair. The teriyaki chicken, however, while well cooked, lacked much punch in the flavor department. The cucumber dill dressing was similarly tepid, but the salsa had a satisfying kick with robust bursts of cilantro.
With this salad day behind us, we're forced to call the battle a tie. Both salads were tasty enough and fresh enough, and each establishment offers diners the chance to be strictly virtuous or to delve more into the decadent danger zone of smoked bacon, bleu cheese, and grilled steak. And therein lies the rub of the DIY salad joint: if the ingredients are good quality and the toppings diverse, the diner is ultimately responsible for the outcome. And in that department, the battle was also a draw. Though we were impressed with our self-control and found our creations pretty satisfying, at the end of the day, we still really wanted a burger.