Are All Lunch Spot Salads Created Equal?

I don't know about your town, but the take-out salad culture in New York City is a little insane, and has been for quite some time. I've seen people throw gaskets at how their spinach was chopped, and the way lines tend to snake outside the door at Chop't, you'd think they're giving out mani-pedi's for free. And, yes, perceptive reader, if you take that as a veiled taunt at your machismo, it is, but never fear, as I admit to being a salad devotee. My salads are perfectly simple: green leaf, romaine, arugala, parsley or chives; thinly sliced carrots and radishes; topped with balsamic, olive oil, salt and pepper.

In my mind, the office lunch salad places don't come close to serving the quality of leaf that I can get at Whole Foods, or even FreshDirect. But I wanted to put the salad spots to the test, so I bought almost exactly the same salad from three salad establishments; Chop't, Just Salad, and Hale and Hearty.

There were few surprises, really, other than the fact that when you eat too much salad, it becomes incredibly boring. As I plowed through six tubs of salad, I felt like a grazing cow. Here's what I found...

The biggest difference between the three salads is actually the purchasing experience. Chop't feels like you're somewhere important, like the Google cafeteria or a lobby outside a TED conference, but that makes things stressful. My guy messed up my order, and I was worried he might get his pay docked. Hale and Hearty employees are always a little sad, and kind of slow. They don't seem to feel comfortable where they are, not quite fitting in their white uniforms. And their chopping skills need work — or the salad choppers need sharper tools. (Maybe the dull blades are a court-mandated order. I'll look into that.) Just Salad is a little different. Those guys have flare; chopping with abandon that sends salad bits high into the air. I don't appreciate losing some of my food, but for sport, it can't be beat.

The prices for the basic, no-frills salads is a little over $8 at Just Salad and Hale and Hearty, while Chop't is under $8. The containers are close in size, with Chop't being biggest. The dressings? I only compared the vinaigrettes and Caesar salads. Chop't goes for more tang than fat, while Hale and Hearty loads on what I suspect is mayo. That worked great in their Caesar, but not so much in the vinaigrette.

As for the bread items, the weird flat thing they serve at Chop't is limp, cold and weird. If it were warm...maybe. Hale and Hearty bread is good enough and the soup cracker option is always fun, but Just Salad's bread has texture, taste and satisfaction that bread should have.

But what about the salad itself, you ask? The actual leaves? Well, there really wasn't a great deal of distinction. Which was what disappointed me: they are all relatively tasteless, with only a hint of the bitter-earth with tinges of sweet that a good salad leaf should have. It suggests to me that the subtle flavors of organic matter had been sucked from the leaves in the washing process—or maybe they were never there at all.

So, overall, that might sound like Just Salad wins this contest, but not really: when I want a salad I can really appreciate, I'll make it myself.

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