January rarely inspires a bowl of cold mesclun, but the time and effort it takes to turn over a new leaf — pun intended — this month can pass more sweetly if you know the play.
While you can cobble together a salad yourself, chances are that you may not have the patience to boil a jammy egg, nor fry bacon to a crisp before pounding it into smithereens. There are several places in the Twin Cities metro area that take their salad game seriously, so I spent a week detoxing to investigate, evaluate and rank them.
Some caveats: Independent, one-shop salad stops were excluded from this list. For control purposes, I opted for a less detox-friendly Cobb salad — all the chains seem to offer it — but I have tried other salad options on each menu, too. Here are my five (ranked) options.
It's unclear what makes Freshii such a stalwart in the fast-casual salad game. There are 400 locations in far-flung locales, from Austria to Saudi Arabia. Is it the freshness of their salads, as their name suggests? No. The state of the tomatoes and leaves in a recent Cobb — soft, limp, lackluster — leave something to be desired. Vegetables are haphazardly chopped, and the ratios can feel predatory. I had to fish around to find errant slices of avocado buried somewhere between the leaves. But! The chicken is tender and — importantly — warm. Plus, at $11.99, Freshii's prices are palatable.
651 Nicollet Mall, Gaviidae Common skyway level, freshii.com
4. Agra Culture
For a chain that prides itself on detox, Agra certainly pushes the limit on its Cobb salad. There's enough blue cheese crumble to fill a cushion, and the amount of chicken will overwhelm even protein hounds. Besides a heartstoppingly gloopy ranch dressing and those dry chicken strips, the Cobb salad ($14.91) otherwise is acceptable, as are the other salads, bowls and sandwiches at this nearly decade-old Minnesota mini-chain. Most ingredients are organic and there's a healthy mix of leafy options all around (kale, arugula, romaine, spinach). Bonus: The spaces are appealing enough to linger.
Four Twin Cities locations: Highland Park in St. Paul and 50th and France, Uptown and the Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minneapolis; agra-culture.com
3. Crisp & Green
The homegrown chain is mounting a takeover of the United States; on their website they are laying plans to open franchises as far as New Jersey and Arkansas. We are blessed for it to expand so far and hope the quality of their produce remains serviceable. The Cobb here is respectable, after all. By default, the No Prob Cobb uses a mix of spinach and kale, throwing in thickly cut rings of jalapeño for a bit of fun (if another salad called Thai & Stop Me is any indication). The leaves are indeed crisp and vibrantly green, while the tomatoes are juicy enough. And even though the chicken is dry and the avocados are past their prime, the salad fulfills its purpose well — well cut, well presented — until you realize it costs nearly $20.
14 locations in the Twin Cities metro area, with more than a dozen on the way; crispandgreen.com
2. Green + the Grain
Yet another local chain, Green + the Grain is slightly more conservative in its approach, opting not to franchise and instead focus on its mobile eatery and five downtown locations. There's much to marvel about the salads here. The best thing about the generously sized — and priced — Cobb (marketed as the Farmer, from $17.33 to $20.66) are the croutons, with their crisp, dark, shaggy crust; the uniform dice on the sweet tomatoes and onions; and the local bacon, with its jerky-like texture and smoky aftertaste. The chicken here is tender, and its marinade renders it an even deeper pleasure to eat. It comes with a choice of blue cheese or buttermilk ranch dressing, but you won't need it. No grains in this one, but other salads will have generous amounts of wheat berries and farro.
Downtown Minneapolis locations at LaSalle Plaza, U.S. Bank Plaza, Baker Center and Oracle Building; in St. Paul at Wells Fargo Place; greenandthegrain.com
Since founding the first outlet in Washington, D.C., more than 15 years ago, a trio of salad and wellness obsessives have only accelerated their plans to bring those iconic hexagonal, compostable bowls nationwide. There are now 967 Sweetgreen outlets, including the three newly opened in the Twin Cities. A fourth is on the way. Despite the scale, the founders seem to be able to source locally for each of their smartly designed, beautiful outlets. At press time, the North Loop location offered a Garden Cobb ($12.45), a classic-ish mix of romaine, egg, blue cheese, tomato and avocado — but spins it with roasted sweet potato, chopped almonds and a velvety balsamic vinaigrette. But the real move is to opt for one of the more signature salads, such as the Harvest or Chicken Pesto Parm. You can't go wrong either way, especially when the greens are consistently buoyant, the tomatoes sweet, the avocados unnervingly perfect and blemish-free.
Locations at 3535 Galleria, Edina; 212 3rd Av. N., Mpls.; 735 Grand Av., St. Paul; coming soon to Dinkytown; sweetgreen.com.
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.