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Sampling some simple salads

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Since soup and salad often go together, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ming’s Cafe just pulled off the first repeat victory in our taste test series. The Asian eatery’s coconut chicken soup was a hit with last year’s soup tasting panel, and their house salad was roundly praised in our latest competition.

But first, a bit about our methods. Just as we did with burgers, tacos and chicken soup, The Sun assembled a team of five judges to assess the merits of takeout salads. To try to keep things on reasonably even footing, all the salads had to be under $10 and were the simplest offer at that price point. To ensure freshness, each came from restaurants that are open for dinner. 

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Phat Thai also has a qualifying salad, but was closed the week of our test — something we found out only after all the other orders were placed. And Dos Gringos Burritos offers a salad wrap at our price point, but only the slightly spendier large size in a bowl. 

The businesses weren’t warned, though of course there is a risk of recognition in a small town. Our panel tasted each blind and provided a private score and some public feedback.

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First up was New York Pizza’s Side Salad ($6), with a staff-recommended balsamic which judge Jorie DeVilbiss praised as “not too tart; not too sweet.” Although Katie Browne found the greens “fresh and crispy,” her husband, Kris Cooke found it “a little on the straight and narrow” — making it a good baseline.

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White House Pizza’s House Salad ($6) put a spin on things with some chickpeas and a house dressing with marinated cheese, which Angus Barber pointed out “kind of warms the whole thing up a little bit.” That fat and flavor was well complimented by the greens, with a finer texture allowing for more variety in each bite. And that’s just the simplest salad — White House boasts no fewer than eight salads under $10, earning it an honorable mention for best overall selection. 

It must have been the variety and quality of both the greens and the vegetables that put our winner, Ming’s House Salad ($9), over the top, with Paige Gibbons calling it “a loved salad.” Several judges also cited its gingery dressing as their favorite of the bunch. Added DeVilbiss, “It was aesthetically pleasing, my palate loved it. I could definitely take that home and have enough for me and my mother.”

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Carbondale Beer Works’ Simple Side Salad ($6) might have suffered by direct comparison, with a smaller portion at a lower price point. Its unboxing nevertheless generated some enthusiasm thanks to some stunning and tasty watermelon radishes. 

Our runner up, Peppino’s Pizza’s House Salad ($7), was instantly recognizable to the entire panel. The size, greens and veggies all won it high marks, with an astringency to the dressing being the only complaint. But, Browne pointed out, you can always go a little lighter when dressing it yourself — or pair it with something else. “I do think this salad on the side, with a slice of pizza, cuts the cheese perfectly.” Alternatively, add chicken for a generous meal unto itself. 

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Although it was the last one we tested, Izakaya’s House Organic Greens ($9) was also the last salad we ordered, so there’s probably another explanation for the somewhat wilted greens — shoulder season likely does no favors to organic growers. The variety, preparation and quality of the remaining vegetables was well received, however. “It’s very pretty,” DeVilbiss noted. “This is the most visually appealing salad.”

So what did this all prove? Well, in addition to the specific salads sampled, we suspect some of the trends scale up to restaurant’s more specialty offerings.

“I feel like when you get a generously portioned starter salad, you can trust that the rest of the meal will fill you up,” Browne noted. 

And the quality and variety was impressive at the price point — with almost all compostable or recyclable containers, to boot. 

“I don’t think we had the same dressing twice, which is a good sign for the culinary scene of Carbondale,” Cooke observed.

Tags: #Carbondale Beer Works #Izakaya #Ming's Cafe #New York Pizza #Peppino's Pizza #restaurants #taste test #White House Pizza
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