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O.C.’s Best: Inspired Salads
These seven hearty bowls are assembled with creativity and gusto, and often outshine even the most assertive entrees
Fresh, hearty salads get serious love in health-conscious Orange County, whether complementing a main dish or prepared as stand-alone meals. Here are seven restaurants where the humble salad reaches its full potential—packing a delicious mix of flavors and textures to a light-but-satisfying end.
1. Greenleaf Gourmet Chopshop
The selections at this salad emporium are varied—choose from 11 options, or build your own. None is as unique as the Lemongrass Chicken Salad, above, with grilled meat, mixed greens, mango, grilled pineapple, jicama, toasted coconut, cashews, Thai chili, and Thai basil, all dressed with a refreshing lemongrass lychee vinaigrette that’s not too sweet. It’s easy to see why it’s the eatery’s most popular order. The Antioxidant Orchard is another healthful pick that doesn’t skimp on flavor: mixed greens, grapes, celery, dried cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, and walnuts in a pomegranate vinaigrette. It’s as guilt-free as it gets. $10 to $11. New location opening soon in SoCo Collection. 234 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa, 949-200-3950, greenleafchopshop.com
2. Old Vine Cafe
Amid the restaurant’s selection of small tasting plates, one dish has remained a memorable standout all these years: the Caprese of Mozzarella Burrata. It’s a simple, fail-proof offering: mounds of burrata, flash-fried micro arugula, grape tomatoes, and a drizzle of citrus-infused olive oil. The contrast of the silky burrata with the crunchy curls of salty, flash-fried arugula is pure genius. You’ll find yourself polishing off the entire plate or battling your companion over the last heavenly morsel. $14. 2937 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-545-1411, oldvinecafe.com
3. Tender Greens
Most meals here revolve around organic greens—likely handpicked that morning from Scarborough Farms, which supplies many high-end restaurants with its specialty lettuces and produce. You can’t go wrong with any of the made-to-order salads, from the Backyard Steak Salad, above, (warm, supple strips of grilled beef served on a bed of red and green butter lettuce and radish, vibrant red and golden beets, all tossed in a zippy horseradish vinaigrette) to the Happy Vegan (farro wheat with cranberries and hazelnuts, quinoa, cucumber, beets, green hummus, tabbouleh, and greens). Or try the grilled veggie salad, a lovely jumble of seasonal produce such as heirloom carrots, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, potatoes, green onion, or Brussels sprouts—all kissed with a little char and mixed with crunchy lettuces, Parmesan, and a lemon vinaigrette. $11 each. New location opening soon across from UC Irvine. Irvine Spectrum Center, 31 Fortune Drive, Irvine, 949-679-9135, tendergreens.com
4. Vientiane Restaurant
One of the few authentic Laotian and Thai restaurants in the county, Vientiane has developed a strong fan base for its sweat-inducing, pungent dishes. Most notable is the papaya salad, with thinly shredded fresh green fruit, and crab or shrimp, in lime, chili, and palm sugar. The flavors meld into a refreshing salad guaranteed to jolt your tastebuds. Note: When you request “spicy” here, it’s going to be exactly that. You’ll also find an excellent rendition of chicken larb, a minced meat salad. $7 to $8. 10262 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, 714-530-7523, vientianelaothai.com
5. Marché Moderne
The French can do no wrong when it comes to salads. The offerings that are part of the restaurant’s three-course prix fixe menus are well-composed and perfectly dressed. Likewise, the signature Salad Composée is essentially Paris on a plate: hearts of palm, asparagus, cucumber, tomatoes, cubed ham, P’tit Basque cheese, avocado, and an agridulce vinaigrette. It’s an elegant blend of crunchy, tender, savory, and tangy—and the portion is just right. $9. South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa, 714-434-7900, marchemoderne.net
6. Whole Foods
It’s no secret that the upscale supermarket is great for picking up gourmet sides and salads for a quick meal at home or an elegant dinner party. Of all the tempting options behind the glass in the prepared foods section, the fresh corn with arugula in an apple cider vinegar dressing proves to be the best go-to for warm weather—crunchy sweet kernels balance the bitter notes of peppery arugula and red onions. Add some cubed avocado for a heartier dish. $7 to $9 a pound. Fashion Island, 415 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-999-8572, wholefoods.com
7. Café Artist
This is where Little Saigon’s crawfish craze was born, but fans are loyal to another stellar dish here: the deep-fried tamarind quail and spicy green mango salad. A platter of crispy quail arrives slathered with a tangy tamarind glaze, which accompanies julienned strips of green mango in a fiery fish-sauce dressing. It’s an addictive combination. Tear into the crunchy and sweet pieces of delicate quail, then quickly add a forkful of spicy mango for the perfect bite. Tip: Lunch is your best bet to avoid the pub’s evening crowd that flouts the state no-smoking law. $13. 14281 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, 714-839-2200
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.