- Fast-food salads are often looked down upon as menu afterthoughts best avoided, but many chains have seriously improved their salad offerings over the past few years.
- We tried salads from four major national fast-food chains: Burger King, Chick-fil-A,McDonald’s, and Wendy’s.
- McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A’s salads are shockingly good, while others miss the mark.
The fast-food salad: an oxymoron? A pointless exercise in trying to be healthy? A grave mistake to be avoided?
Fast-food salads have a bad reputation – the afterthoughts of the chain menus, half-heartedly made and forgotten amid the glistening burgers and fries.
But somehow, these grab-and-go containers of lettuce have improved vastly over the years.
While they started off as a weak olive branch in the 2000s aimed at placating people who complained about fast-food chains’ glut of fats and dearth of healthy choices, many have seriously stepped up their salad game.
Gone are the days of iceberg lettuce and goopy ranch – think fruits, beans, mesclun, cabbage, and pomegranate vinaigrettes.
Interestingly, each of the salads from these chains centres on chicken. Some chains, like McDonald’s and Burger King, allow you to choose which kind of chicken to add — grilled or fried — while others don’t.
Burger King’s Chicken Club Salad
Burger King used to be my favourite chain as a kid, but as I’ve aged, I have come to find that the quality is severely lacking. This sentiment extends to its salads.
The grilled chicken is bland, stringy, and boring, but it isn’t otherwise awful – there’s romaine lettuce, the Ken’s Steakhouse ranch dressing is solid, and the tomatoes seem … decent.
But it’s lacklustre. If “decent” is the best thing to be said, there may be an issue.
There’s nothing exciting about this salad. And sure, I realise salads aren’t expected to be the Carnival of meals, but a little pizzazz would be appreciated.
The extremely salty bacon is a footnote at best, and the chicken is just there. It’s boring. The fact that I paid $US7.49 for this feels a little insulting.
Burger King’s Chicken Garden Salad
The “garden salad” is perhaps the most boring salad I’ve ever encountered. If the chicken club salad was exciting – and I use the term “exciting” lightly here – only for the presence of bacon, then this one is somehow even less interesting for the same price.
It’s lettuce, tomatoes, and chicken. That’s it. It’s the Ben Stein’s voice of salads.
Does it meet the criteria for a salad? Yes, absolutely. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect so much of it. But isn’t there something sad about that too?
McDonald’s Bacon Ranch Salad
McDonald’s offers a choice of crispy or grilled chicken for its salads, and considering this one has bacon in it, I opted for the fried chicken – clearly, health isn’t too much of a concern here.
But it actually feels healthy. The quality seems remarkably high.
This is not your grandfather’s McDonald’s salad. The lowest-quality item might be the chicken, which isn’t even that bad, as the chain reintroduced the buttermilk crispy chicken.
Romaine lettuce, baby spinach, baby kale, and red-leaf lettuce all mingle in the bowl with plump, firm grape tomatoes.
Honestly, this salad is good – suspiciously good. The lettuce is fresh, the tomatoes vibrant, the bacon crunchy, the chicken tender and well-seasoned; it’s all there. Plus, the price point is spectacular, at $US5.99.
A McDonald’s salad this good? I’m genuinely confused.
McDonald’s Southwest Salad
I went with grilled chicken for the vaguely Tex-Mex-themed salad. It just felt right.
In fact, this whole salad feels right.
I would never have expected a McDonald’s salad to be so satisfying. It’s the same greens mix as the other salad, plus tortilla strips, beans, corn, chicken, Newman’s Own southwest dressing, even a lime wedge.
This is impressive.
It even makes for a fantastic vegetarian option sans chicken, thanks to the addition of beans as a nonmeat protein, as dutifully reported by Business Insider’s Kate Taylor during her vegetarian-fast-food adventure.
And for only $US5.99? If anything, I’m increasingly suspicious as to one, how McDonald’s can make such a good salad, and two, how McDonald’s can charge so little for such a good salad.
Wendy’s Taco Salad
Delicious in theory, but lacklustre in execution.
It’s essentially a plain, iceberg-heavy salad with Wendy’s chilli, nacho-cheese sauce, and salsa dumped on top. It’s supposed to come with tortilla chips, but they weren’t in the bag – a shame, because this salad needs some tortilla crunch to add some interesting texture and tie it together thematically.
There’s no dressing, which I guess I don’t mind, considering the huge amount of chilli. But overall, this salad just feels kind of lazy.
For $US7.29, you’re basically getting iceberg and romaine lettuce, some shredded cheese, and a bowl of chilli and nacho cheese. Meh.
It’s a pity, as taco salads done right are one of my favourite meals (see: Qdoba’s).
Wendy’s Power Mediterranean Salad
This salad is clearly Wendy’s stab in the dark at the rise of trendy salads. It has nearly everything on the cool-salad checklist: quinoa, hummus, feta, chickpeas, balsamic vinaigrette.
The problem is that it’s all a bit much. It’s a cacophony of flavours – an extremely talented but inexperienced orchestra that has decided to forgo rehearsing before playing Carnegie Hall.
I suppose in that overly complicated analogy, your taste buds are Carnegie Hall, and they paid $US7.79 for a ticket.
There’s just a lot happening in this salad, so the rather good ingredients are all shouting over one another, leaving us unable to fully enjoy it.
But to Wendy’s credit, it’s miles beyond what the chain used to serve for salads. I remember my mum would order salads at Wendy’s – I always went for the Baconator, bless my 10-year-old metabolism – that were woefully inadequate, gross heaps of iceberg lettuce with weird, vaguely Asian dressings.
Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken Salad
This one, on the other hand, has just the right amount of flavours and textures coming together.
Wendy’s grilled chicken is fairly good – in fact, its grilled-chicken sandwich came in a strong third place in our showdown.
And for $US7.69, this salad has a lot of decent-quality ingredients that would cost nearly double at a comparable salad chain.
Add apples for crispness and sweetness, cranberries for a hint of acid, roasted pecans for an earthy warmth, and crumbled blue cheese for a touch of funk, and you’ve got a surprisingly tasty salad.
The pomegranate vinaigrette is a tad too sweet, but not overbearingly so.
All in all, this is an impressively balanced salad that’s satisfying and fresh.
Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad
I’ve always loved Caesar salads. They’re perhaps the ultimate combination of the best tastes and textures in existence: salty cheeses, crisp and juicy tomatoes, crunchy croutons, and the massive and rich umami bomb that is Caesar dressing. Throw some good chicken in the mix? Even better.
Wendy’s does a pretty good job with this one. I don’t entirely understand the choice of using spicy chicken, but it’s not all that spicy anyway, so at worst it tastes enthusiastically seasoned.
Could it use more flakes of parmesan? Definitely. But as far as chain Caesar salads go, this is pretty fantastic.
Chick-fil-A Spicy Southwest Salad
OK, so everyone already knows Chick-fil-A makes great chicken, grilled or fried. So one can order a salad there with chicken and be confident that, at the very least, the chicken will be excellent. And it is! But the salads are also weirdly good.
This Tex-Mex salad has vibrant green lettuce, bright red tomatoes, carrots, chilies, bell peppers, corn, beans, chilli-lime pepitas, and tortilla strips. It’s remarkably similar to McDonald’s Southwest Salad.
And frankly, it’s just as good.
You have your choice of dressing; I went with the suggested chilli-lime vinaigrette, which brought an earthy heat that brightened every flavour without weighing down the rest of the salad.
Some salads are just lettuce and vegetables thrown into the mix, and they don’t satisfy hunger – if anything, they pique it. But this is a wholly filling meal for $US8.99.
Chick-fil-A Cobb Salad
A little less frilly than the Spicy Southwest Salad, this one is fairly straightforward.
It’s a typical Cobb construction of crumbled bacon, diced egg, and shredded cheese dotting a bed of romaine lettuce, carrots, and red cabbage, with some sliced-up chicken nuggets thrown into the mix.
One thing is missing: some sort of funky cheese, usually Roquefort or Gorgonzola.
The toppings are scarce, and there’s not that much bacon or egg, which is a little disappointing. But it’s not a bad salad.
The quality is pretty high for a fast-food salad – higher even than some salad-focused chains.
The suggested avocado-ranch dressing is a good pairing, and the chicken is (of course) up to snuff, but I do wish it had a tangy note of some blue cheese.
Chick-fil-A Market Salad
A very fresh, very vibrant salad. Strawberries, apple, and blueberries add a sweetness not from a sugary vinaigrette.
You can choose your dressing for all of Chick-fil-A’s salads – I got ranch for this one, but the balsamic vinaigrette would probably be an amazing match.
The grilled chicken is a good savoury counterpoint to the sweet fruit, plus it’s healthier than fried chicken. And it’s Chick-fil-A, so it’s just plain delicious chicken with excellent marinade and seasoning.
This salad feels incredibly healthy, if not a tad safe.
So what’s the verdict?
Honestly, I was most surprised by McDonald’s salads. The quality is far above and beyond what I expected – not that McDonald’s is bad, but it’s, well, McDonald’s.
Chick-fil-A’s salads are delicious on the whole, but that’s less of a shock considering the chain’s fairly high standards for quality.
Wendy’s is middle-of-the-road, with some hits and misses, and Burger King – well, no one goes to Burger King for a salad anyway, right?
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