I confess that when dining at restaurants I usually just give salads a cursory glance on my way to entrees. But salads offer chefs the chance to blend interesting and sometimes unexpected ingredients. They’re also a great way to shave a few calories without compromising on flavor. Here are seven salad recommendations, from the comforting and familiar concoctions to the more exotic and surprising combinations. Just make sure to tell them to hold the bread.
Caesar salad with grilled trout at Jack Allen’s Kitchen ($13.99)
The Jack Allen’s Kitchens in Round Rock and Oak Hill may boast that they can chicken-fry just about anything, but chef/owner Jack Gilmore’s dedication to farm-to-table freshness and quality ingredients can be found in this crunchy tumble of romaine hearts laced with tart dressing. Make a complete meal by adding a huge filet of flaky grilled ruby trout rubbed with the bright crunch of sundried tomato and walnut pesto. (7720 Texas 71. 512-852-8558, Jackallenskitchen.com)
Beet and barley at Epicerie ($12)
One of the most refreshing and interesting salads I’ve had this summer, this dish from chef Sarah McIntosh serves as culinary corollary for her crisp and elegant café. Creamy pearls of firm barley and pumpkin seeds give snap, crackle and pop to a salad full of earthy beets, herbaceous tarragon vinaigrette, electric mint and tart yogurt. If your dining companion is skeptical of your vegetarian choice, you can direct him to a pastrami sandwich served on buttery French country bread. (2307 Hancock Drive. 512-371-6840, epicerieaustin.com)
Spicy grilled beef salad at Thai Fresh ($12)
This salad epitomizes the name of the counter-service restaurant Jam Sanitchat and Bruce Barnes opened in 2008. Waves of local hydroponic greens and herbs serve as a feathery bed for bursting cherry tomatoes, strands of carrots and thick ridged circles of cucumber. Medallions of grilled grass-fed sirloin edged with fat top greens tossed in a powerful and pungent spicy dressing made of fish sauce and Thai chilies. The dressing is the perfect Thai blend of sweet, sour, saltiness and sting. (909 W. Mary St. 512-494-6436, thai-fresh.com)
Roasted chicken and beet salad at Second Bar and Kitchen ($17)
The roasted chicken, with its crackling auburn skin and juicy all-natural meat, could serve as an entire meal on its own. The accompanying salad almost feels like a bonus, but it’s certainly no afterthought. Ribbons of bitter arugula weave a nest for the knobby crunch of candied pecans and tender wedges of earthy roasted beets, with sweet-tart zip of cranberry vinaigrette contrasting against the salty salve of creamy Camembert cheese. Order a glass of homemade lemonade for the perfect beverage complement. (200 Congress Ave. 512-827-2750, congressaustin.com/second)
Falafel salad at Maoz Vegetarian ($8.35)
Austinites who’ve spent time in Amsterdam will recognize the trademark green and orange-red signage of Maoz Vegetarian. Native New Yorker Roy Landesman first encountered the veggie-friendly spot in Amsterdam in the mid-’90s. After several years of negotiations and patience, the longtime vegetarian and his wife, Anne, persuaded the Dutch chain to agree to an Austin franchise.
Why Austin? Landesman, who’d been coming to Austin for years as a real estate consultant, thought the city would be receptive to the vegetarian concept and would be a great place to raise the couple’s young daughter.
The small shop serves pita sandwiches, wraps and salad bowls, with your choice of falafel, vegan shawarma, or hummus, egg and eggplant. My bowl of fresh greens came with several crunchy and fragrant chickpea balls fried in soybean oil. A condiment bar offers a roster of toppings such as chickpeas, lightly fried broccoli, tomatoes, corn, carrots and cabbage. Dress it with a creamy tzatziki or garlic sauce. (4601 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-323-2259, maozusa.com)
Spinach salad at Enoteca ($10)
This Italian café has built its reputation on bubbled Neapolitan pizzas and piping-hot pasta dishes. The spinach salad offers a less carb-intensive approach without sacrificing flavor. An oily bacon vinaigrette with subtle whispers of pork gives sheen to ample, crisp leaves of baby spinach and rippled magenta radicchio. The funk of mounds of creamy gorgonzola dolce and firm slices of mushrooms balances the sweetness of crunchy candied walnuts and slippery cuts of roasted red peppers that hide between the layers of irony spinach. (1610 S. Congress Ave. 512-441-7672, austinvespaio.com)
Club salad at Bartlett’s ($15)
The late Tim Bartlett broke away from the Houston’s chain in 2010, turning the restaurant he’d worked at for 20 years into an independent operation. Despite the name change, the menu is still populated with familiar New American classics like this take on a Cobb salad. Crumbled egg yolks, squiggles of carrots and caramelized cuts of bacon dot this salad that puts a spin on the Cobb by replacing grilled chicken with tempura-fried chicken. I take mine with bleu cheese dressing. (2408 West Anderson Lane. 512-451-7333, bartlettsaustin.com)