Salad

Hearty Cobb Salad, with chicken, bacon, tomatoes, onions and eggs (Shutterstock)

I did not grow up eating salad. Or at least, I didn’t grow up eating anything that might be mistaken these days for a salad.

My mother, who was seriously challenged as a home cook, would cut up some iceberg lettuce pieces which had seen better days, grab a plate, and serve them, announcing that it was a salad. That was it. No carrots, no cucumbers, no anything — and especially no dressing. For the longest time, my idea of dressing was some salt sprinkled on the lettuce leaves. I would have used black pepper too, but we didn’t have black pepper. Salt was the only spice in our house.

Which is why to this day, salad is something by which I’m fascinated. I guess you can say I came to it later in life, in my teens, when I began going to a super cheapo restaurant chains called Tad’s Steakhouse, which offered a $1.19 steak dinner that included a skinny, leathery steak, a baked potato with lots of butter — and a salad with carrot shreds, garbanzo beans and bleu cheese dressing. I had never tasted anything like that. The steak wasn’t much to speak of. But that salad, for me, a thing of wonder.

These days, of course, salads are far more complex, more ornate, more amazing. From the Cobb through the Caesar, from salads built around sashimi and poke, to salads made of ancient grains and more modern tofu, tempeh and seitan — salads are a ubiquity, especially here in Southern California.

The lettuces have evolved to a degree that iceberg is actually a pleasant change of pace from the arugula and micro-green. And health-obsessed as we are, we perceive salads as the perfect diet dish. Though, of course, they’re only as dietary as we make them. I’ve stood on line at the Souplantation, and watched as diners cover their greens with layers of croutons, cheese and dressing. A cheeseburger is almost certainly better for you.

You can get a good salad pretty much anywhere. But we are blessed with sundry restaurants where the salads are things of beauty, culinary objects of desire, competing well with the seared ahi and the Kobe beef tartare.

My mother introduced me to plain greens — Southern California keeps me fed with exotic field greens and over-the-top mix-ins. Salad is not longer an afterthought. It’s a meal, especially at destinations like these:

Lemonade

451 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, 310-545-5777; Del Amo Fashion Center, 21540 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, 310-882-7711; www.lemonadela.com

Lemonade is a nearly ubiquitous cafeteria-style seasonally based chain with a unique, and often highly creative salads, currently an even dozen of them, including snap pea & edamame, avocado and cherry tomato, kale & farro, red quinoa & Fuji apples, honey roasted carrots, and New Mexican chili roasted butternut squash.

There are another seven bowls, which are essentially a salad subset. Along with even more salad equivalents spread across the menu like the salmon Nicoise, and the curry apple chicken salad. In other words: This is salad heaven, for those weary of a generic green salad with shreds of carrot and cherry tomatoes. In my experience, you never get tired of salading at Lemonade.

Mendocino Farms

The Point, 840 S. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo; 424-218-4400; www.mendocinofarms.com

Mendocino Farms isn’t so much a restaurant, as it is a culinary concept, not unlike the numerous healthy (but not too healthy) options around town — Tender Greens, Sweetgreen, Simply Salad, Salad Farm and the like. It’s a place where you can eat healthy — but not too healthy — a casual alternative to places where healthy is beaten down your throat.

In the case of Mendocino Farms it comes with the territory. But only as much as you want it to. This translates into a salad heavy menu, with eight options, each marked with a calorie count, and each coming with sundry options that make the number of salads even high.

You can, for instance, have your salad Nicoise with “sustainable pole & line caught premium yellowfin tuna”… or with Mary’s free-range chicken breast. The Mary’s chicken reappears in the chicken & prosciutto salad, the Modern Caesar (made with kale), the chicken Cobb, Mama Chen’s Chinese chicken salad, the Drake Farms salad, and the avocado & quinoa “superfood ensalada.” There’s a taco salad made with Impossible Brand chorizo. For those who want meat…that’s meatless.

The Source Café

509 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach; 310-318-1600; www.thesourcecafehb.com

Well, of course, there’s a natural, organic, healthy, good-for-you restaurant in the middle of Hermosa Beach — beach towns I believe are required by law to have at least one eatery where the dietarily committed among us can find dishes that are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, keto and paleo. (And how strange it is to find paleo and vegan sharing space on the same menu? The former is about eating like our Neanderthal ancestors — lots of proteins, not so many carbs. The latter is eating food the Neanderthals would have consumed, if there was no tasty wooly mammoth close at hand — lots of carbs, not so much protein.)

Salads are big part of the menu at The Source Café — kale with caramelized garbanzos, a chicken salad with pecan pesto, a quinoa bowl with kale and pesto, a Power Bowl with turmeric, cauliflower and broccoli. There’s a whole separate “Drinkable Garde” menu of what are, in some cases, salads turned into juices and smoothies. Eat your salad…drink your salad…as long as you get your greens, life is good.

Tender Greens

2181-A Rosecrans Ave., El Segundo, 310-321-5950; Village Del Amo, 1247 Hawthorne Blvd., Torrance, 424-488-0639; www.tendergreens.com

The plates at the Tender Greens chain consist of a choice of six salads, topped with the protein of your choice, with a grain at the side. Add onto that eight salads, and you’ll be sure to get your daily greens — plus a meal to take home for later, for the portions are generous.

There’s only one vegan salad, and the rest are built around proteins — chicken, beef, tuna, salmon — which means you’ll get both your roughage and your protein at one sitting. I like the grilled chicken Cobb, simply because, unlike the original Cobb served at the Brown Derby, the ingredients haven’t been chopped up into baby food. The chicken and avocado and egg all have substance, and taste the better for it.

Tocaya Organica

I850 S. Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo; 424-352-0876; www.tocayaorganica.com

Half the menu at Tocaya Organica is taken up by salads, and salad-friendly bowls. But there’s much that sets the Tocaya chain apart, for this is Mexican food, by way of modern Angeleno cuisine.

And a certain amount of consideration is called for when ordering, for the variants and choices are many. Let us consider, for instance, the Summer Love Salad, which in its most basic form consists of shred romaine, diced cucumber, grilled corn, strawberries, pomegranate seeds, chipotle flavored almonds and chopped mint. To which the “Chef Recommends” achiote chicken and manchego cheese. For the Tostada Salad, the Chef Recommends turkey picante and queso fresco. For the Shredded Kale & Quinoa Salad, it’s adobo tofu and vegan chipotle jack.

You can, of course, not follow the chef’s recommendations. But you should. After all: Like mom, the chef knows what’s best.

Veggie Grill

720 Allied Way, El Segundo, 310-535-0025; Rolling Hills Plaza, 2533-D Pacific Coast Hwy., Torrance, 310-325-6689; www.veggiegrill.com

The popularity of the Veggie Grill chain is undeniable; on a weekend night, the El Segundo outlet is pretty much packed, not with the wheat juice crowd, but with families who appear to enjoy a hamburger with fries during the rest of the week.

The Veggie Grill has managed to position itself as a destination for both vegetarians, and non-vegetarians. It’s a tasty alternative, for those who want recognizable dishes, even if those recognizable dishes aren’t made of the animal protein they’re usually made of. It’s a chain where salad, not surprisingly, is made with all the greens o’ the moment.

There are seven Entrée Salads on the menu, including Quinoa Power Salad, All Hale Kale, and a Savory Kale Caesar.

And that brings me to my sense of using vegetarian cooking as an aid in dieting. Salads are a wonderful thing — as long as you don’t assemble them at places like the Souplantation, where the options make a Big Mac seem healthy. I like my greens. I like them with a diet dressing, low in fat.

Years ago, I got into the habit of getting the dressing on the side. I have little enough clothing that still fits. I’ve got to do all I can to not have to move up another size. Eating salads, well constructed, works very well.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at mreats@aol.com.

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