We've come a long way from the days when salads were considered simply "rabbit food" or fare for picky girls attempting to slim down. I often anticipate a salad in a restaurant as much as I do the main course thanks to the extra attention that many restaurants pay their leafy greens. And just as frequently, I'll go to a restaurant specifically for a salad -- something I certainly never did 20 or even 10 years ago.
So on this first day of summer, here's a celebration of our favorite fresh and refreshing salads in town.
10. Salad bar at Georgia's Market Downtown
Although I prefer a salad that's thoughtfully constructed for me, there are times when all I really want to do is crash madly through a salad bar and hurricane together a mad mixture of vegetables on a plate. Georgia's has long been my favorite place to do so, mostly because you always know that the vegetables, fruits, dressings and other accompaniments are organic and as fresh as Georgia's can get them.
9. Som tam at Vieng Thai
Green papaya salad isn't for everyone, but those who enjoy the stuff will find the best version of it in Houston at Vieng Thai. I love the apt description that the Fearless Critic team gives of Vieng Thai's version in its Houston guide:
Som tam is made with green papaya (which has nothing to do with the sweet orange version of the fruit; it's crisp and sour, somewhere closer to cabbage or jicama). It also involves fiery chiles, palm sugar, salt, garlic, dried shrimp, peanuts, fish sauce, lime and often other ingredients, ground together with a mortar and pestle.
8. Salade Max & Julie at Brasserie Max & Julie
This delicate but tasty French salad from Houston's most adorably French brasserie comes with shaved celeriac, toasted fennel, hazelnuts and orange slices all on top of a huge bed of mixed greens. In keeping with the orange slices, it's dressed with an orange vinaigrette that -- while actually a winter fruit -- always tastes like summer to me.
7. Que Más salad at Mission Burrito
The phrase "que más" means "what more," and the Que Más salad at Mission Burrito is a veritable treasure chest of ingredients -- greens, potatoes, corn, roasted red peppers, jicama, tortilla strips, cheese and the meat of your choice (although it's just as good without). It's an eclectic mix, yet somehow it works; it's hearty, healthy and tasty. Try the low-fat buttermilk dressing if you're a health nut, but the salad is truly best with Mission Burrito's signature cilantro-ranch dressing.
6. Shrimp salad at Local Foods
Local Foods is more than just a sandwich shop: Its soups and salads are fine stuff, too, especially its shrimp-topped salad of arugula dressed in a bright lemon-thyme vinaigrette. Along with a plethora of shrimp, you'll also find tangy dried cranberries, salty sheaths of Pecorino-Romano and sweet Texas pecans given the slightest glaze of honey.
5. Jellyfish salad at Que Huong
Spicy, crunchy and tangy, Vietnamese jellyfish salad is also called "Seafood Delight" or "Summer Delight" and both titles are equally appropriate. The salad is loaded up with seafood -- ranging from jellyfish (of course) to shrimp, mussels, squid or fish balls -- then tossed with cucumbers, onions and a few stray leaves of lettuce (so, you know, it's still a salad in that sense). The lime-fish sauce dressing is both tart and pungent, and delivers a hot wollop thanks to the crushed red chile flakes scattered throughout.
4. Torn greens salad at Haven
Sometimes simple is best. Case in point, the very simple torn greens salad at Haven, where a pile of crunchy greens is coated in a black pepper-Dijon mustard dressing, then topped with crumbles of Brazos cheddar and -- the crowning glory of this salad -- croutons made from fried green tomatoes.
3. Farmers salad at L'Olivier
Another refreshingly simple salad, this French salad at L'Olivier takes crunchy mixed greens and tops them with a ground black pepper and a basic vinaigrette that's enhanced with the golden yolk of a poached egg on top. A welcome salty rush of flavor is provided by thick, fatty knots of bacon throughout.
2. Sicilia salad at Trevisio
This elegant, highly civil Sicilia salad captivated me from the moment I saw it on the menu. Frisee topped with juicy oranges, delicate white anchovies, tangy Castelvetrano olives, bright fennel and heirloom tomatoes -- this was a salad with some thought behind it, existing as a showcase for all of these ingredients instead of a repository for kitchen scraps.
1. Texas melon salad at Beaver's
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The honeydew melon is at its greenest and sweetest right now, perfectly accented with fat white peaks of Brazos Valley raw feta. But although those two ingredients work wonderfully together, Beaver's didn't make a name for itself based on simplicity. The salad is also topped with roughly diced bacon, thin slices of fresh jalapeños, pumpkin seeds and pickled red onions that pack a tart little punch with each bite.
Finished off with a serrano-based vinaigrette that tastes bright and citrusy, the salad fires on multiple cylinders like a finely tuned machine: salty, sweet, spicy, meaty, tart, soft, crunchy, hot and cold all at once. You'll want to spend time over this salad, constructing every bite as such. This isn't a throwaway salad, a mere pit stop before the real show begins. This salad is a main event in and of itself.