At a recent party, while discussing my fast-food reviews for Serious Eats, someone asked, "What are you reviewing next?" I smiled and said, "Wendy's new salads." Astonished, she replied, "I thought salads were supposed to be healthy." Yes, salads are supposed to be healthy—and lumping piles of beef and crispy chicken onto them changes the caloric profile. But Wendy's is my favorite fast-food restaurant, and I wanted to see what they could do with a salad.
Wendy's recently began offering new salad offerings to complement their existing ones. On a visit this week, I tried three: the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, the Spicy Chicken Caesar, and the Baja Salad. While all different, the salads share a few things in common—the chicken is in bite-sized pieces, they offer you the dressing (and some toppings) in individual packets so you can put as much or as little as you'd like, and they're all $5.99 plus tax.
Apple Pecan Chicken Salad
Wendy's bills the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad as a mix of greens (Iceberg, Romaine, and "Spring" greens like spinach and arugula) with blue cheese crumbles, dried cranberries, candied pecans, apple chunks, and a grilled chicken fillet and a raspberry vinaigrette, at 580 calories. With that many ingredients, I was afraid that the salad wouldn't come together, but it did. The apples were crisp and sweet, the vinaigrette wasn't too sweet, and the blue cheese crumbles provided a pungent balance to the fruit and candied pecans. The greens were either crisp (iceberg) or soft and fresh ("spring" greens). The chicken had the one-note salty taste of a KFC fillet or Subway chicken, but it did have a bit of paprika spice. All in all, the salad came together nicely.
Spicy Chicken Caesar
I loved the spicy chicken sandwich as a high-schooler, so I devoured the second salad, the Spicy Chicken Caesar. A less complex salad, it only has Lemon Garlic Caesar Dressing, Romaine lettuce, Asiago, grape tomatoes, and a chopped spicy chicken fillet. The lettuce was perfectly fresh, as good as any I've had at Panera or Cosi, and the cheese shavings tasted aged and nutty, just what I'd expect from decent Asiago. The dressing had only a hint of lemon and garlic in it, and gave a good creamy Caesar taste to everything. The croutons come in a vacuum-sealed pack; they were very crunchy, not like some croutons that can taste moist and stale. Though the fried spicy chicken fillet raises the caloric content (740 calories), it gives a really interesting spicy twist to a Caesar, a salad that rarely sees much variety. The grape tomatoes disappointed me a bit, though; they were tough, without too much taste or the juiciness I expect from grape tomatoes.
Last up was the Baja salad, a version 2.0 of the Southwest Taco Salad Wendy's already offers. The Baja comes with a mix of greens, pico de gallo, Wendy's chili, guacamole, and a shredded blend of cheddar and pepper jack cheeses. Of the three, the Baja Salad certainly involved the most work; basically, they present you with a salad and a cup of chili, and it rests upon the eater to add as much or as little chilli as he wants. Again, the mixed greens don't disappoint. The Pico de Gallo is tasty, a good use of bad tomatoes. But the grated cheese left a lot to be desired, and the guacamole was flat and unexciting. In the end, though, I didn't feel like I was eating a taco salad, so much as a bowl of Chili on lettuce.
Overall, I think the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad is the best of the ones I tried; I also enjoyed the Spicy Chicken Caesar, though it's quite heavy for a salad. The Baja comes in last. It's not a light lunch (also 740 calories), it's messy, and though I love Wendy's chili, I don't think it belongs on a salad. But I'd return for an Apple Chicken Salad—fresh, plenty of flavor, and just six bucks. Can't beat that!