Killer Salads

You want the truth about that “light lunch” you just chowed down? Entrée-size salads at many fast-casual chains are packed with calories and fat. Here’s a list of some of the unhealthiest salads we could find, plus slimmer substitutes to consider.

And the winner (er, loser?) is the Quesadilla Explosion salad from Chili's. It takes the cake with 88 grams of fat and 1,400 calories. Photograph by flickr user tisay

Au Bon Pain
Toss it: Turkey Cobb.
The Cobb is a yin/yang of healthy and fatty, with the benefits of fresh turkey, carrots, tomatoes, and greens offset by caloric croutons, Gorgonzola cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and blue-cheese dressing. ABP’s version (without the recommended blue-cheese dressing) clocks in at 240 calories and 19 grams of fat (8 grams saturated). The dressing adds 310 calories and 33 grams of fat (per every two ounces). Switch it out for fat-free sun-dried-tomato dressing (110 calories) to lighten the load if you must answer the call of the Cobb.
Try instead: Thai peanut chicken salad.
While Asian-inspired salads are sometimes misleadingly heavy (ABP’s Mandarin chicken salad is nearly as caloric as the Cobb), the peanut salad has only 200 calories, 7 grams of fat, and no saturated fat before dressing. Unfortunately, the Thai dressing isn’t low-fat (8 grams, plus 160 calories per every two ounces), but it’s better for you calorie-wise than the sesame-ginger (and many of the other dressings on the list).
See for yourself.

California Pizza Kitchen
Toss it: Waldorf chicken salad.
Though the Waldorf appears on the lighter side with ingredients such as grapes, apples, and celery, the candied walnuts, blue cheese, and recommended blue-cheese dressing make it one of the fattiest options on CPK’s entrée-size-salad menu (a full serving has 31 grams of saturated fat and 1,561 calories, more than three-quarters of the daily recommended intake). Half portions are available with Dijon-balsamic dressing, which cuts the saturated fat down to 13 grams and the calories to 743 (fat-free vinaigrette options have 106 calories for 1½ ounces).
Try instead: Grilled-vegetable salad.
Grilled zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, and corn are combined with fresh avocado and sun-dried tomatoes for a total of 8 grams saturated fat and 810 calories. Beef up the protein with chicken (not steak) for only one extra gram of fat (though the calories jump to 1,044). Stay away from the recommended dressing and stick with a fat-free vinaigrette.
See for yourself.

Toss it: Quesadilla Explosion salad.
The “explosion” salad is aptly named: a single serving has 88 grams of fat (26 saturated) and 1,400 calories—numbers that might, well, cause your waistline to explode. The benefits of grilled chicken, tomatoes, greens, and cilantro are outweighed by the negatives: shredded cheese, tortilla strips, and cheese-quesadilla wedges. A kid’s-size portion of cheese quesadillas (24 grams of fat, 460 calories) with a side of seasonal veggies (6 grams of fat, 80 calories) offers a similar combo of flavors without the caloric overload.
Try instead: Caribbean salad with chicken or shrimp.
The combination of fruit (fresh pineapple and oranges), choice of lean protein, and veggies has one-quarter the amount of fat and less than half the calories. The honey-lime dressing has 17 grams of fat and 200 calories. To keep the salad slimming, stick with nonfat honey-mustard or even low-fat ranch (3 grams of fat, 45 calories).
See for yourself.

On the one hand, the made-to-order nature of a Chop’t salad allows you to control what and how much you put into your lunch. Customers are even asked if they want “light,” “medium,” or “heavy” pours of dressing. On the other hand, it can be difficult to judge exactly how many calories and fat grams you’re ingesting, especially in one of the predesigned “classics.” Plus, the portions of dressing often depend on the hand of the pourer, as do the quantities of toppings, which are grabbed from bins. Thankfully, the chain has comparatively low-cal and low-fat options to begin with.
Toss it: Chop’t Po Boy.
The Po’ Boy is one of the poorest options for those watching fat and calories. The mix of fried-chicken strips, tomato, onion, cheddar cheese, and romaine has 41 grams of fat, 14 grams of saturated fat, and 370 calories before it’s dressed. Add on the recommended Tabasco-ranch dressing, and that’s another 14 grams of fat and 130 calories in two tablespoons. (With a full helping of greens and “heavy” dressing, that number could triple or quadruple.) For a lighter version, ask for less lettuce (which means there’s less to be dressed), and opt for a light pour of the other recommended dressing, a “spa” (the chain’s parlance for lighter dressings) Tex-Mex ranch, which has only 1 gram of fat and 20 calories.
Try instead: Palm Beach Shrimp.
Undressed, this toss of grilled shrimp, avocado, tomato, cucumber, and hearts of palm is good for beach bunnies: 11 grams of fat and 100 calories in a serving. Keep it light by picking the right dressing. The white balsamic is the less caloric of the two recommended options, but any of the spa dressings are ideal (good matches would be sesame-Asian, tzatziki yogurt, or balsamic vinaigrette, all with less than 1½ grams of fat and 30 calories).
See for yourself.

Corner Bakery
Toss it: Caesar salad with chicken.
Not only does the Caesar salad have a serious lack of veggies (abundant romaine doesn’t count), it also has 65 grams of fat (13 saturated) and 820 calories. The secret’s in the sauce: Caesar dressing is Corner Bakery’s worst for dieters, with double or triple the calories and fat grams than in the other dressings. If you can’t kill the Caesar from your order (et tu, Brute?), at least opt for the soup-and-salad Corner Combo meal. It cuts your salad intake nearly in half, and you can pair the salad with a cup of three-lentil vegetable soup. It’s comparatively higher in vegetables and protein (8 grams) and lower in calories and fat (140 calories and 3 grams of fat in a cup).
Try instead: Asian wonton salad.
For an alternative entrée salad with meat protein, the Asian salad is the way to go, thanks to its all-natural roast chicken, edamame, mixed greens, and bounty of vegetables. The calorie (530) and fat (16 grams) levels aren’t low, but again, you can go for the combo with soup and lessen the salad’s impact. Also, the nonfat crispy wontons have fewer than 100 calories—a better way to satisfy a crunch craving than the tortilla strips, which have 10 grams of fat in an entrée-size salad serving alone.
See for yourself.

Toss it: Cosí Cobb
Even worse than the Cosí Signature (discussed here), a single serving of the Cosí Cobb (grilled chicken, bacon, Gorgonzola, and tomatoes over mixed greens) with the paired sherry-shallot dressing has 708 calories, 55 grams of fat, and a whopping 1,328 milligrams of sodium—more than half the daily recommended intake in one bowl. If you have an unstoppable Cobb craving, opt for the Cosí Cobb on the
Lighter Side menu. It has 519 calories and 34 grams of fat.
Try instead: Mediterranean shrimp salad.
This Greek-inspired salad incorporates fresh veggies such as tomatoes and olives for a dish that has only 357 calories and 31 grams of fat. Substitute the fat-free balsamic or Dijon vinaigrette dressing to slash the fat even more.
See for yourself.

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.