As a long time Panera stan, dating back to the last time boot cut jeans were in style, I was excited to taste through the entire salad menu. I often stick to my regular order, and was eager to branch out.
And while salad places seem to be ubiquitous these days, Panera holds up. Prices are lower than most salad-specific spots, and every salad is available as a half or whole order. Each salad is served with the customer's choice of a chunk of baguette, an apple, or a small bag of chips, and all salads can be easily modified in the app. That is, guests can easily add a few free veggies, like cucumber or grape tomatoes. They can upgrade by adding cheeses, avocado, or chicken. They can also see a full list of ingredients already in the salad and request if they want each element light, regular, or extra.
A hack to get a little fancy: Grab a slice of fresh lemon from the iced tea station to spritz on top of your greens.
I tried Panera's entire salad menu, and ranked each one from my least favorite to the best. Here are the results:
Citrus Asian Crunch Salad with Chicken
This salad cost me $15.19. Did it have my favorite chicken? Yes. The warm seared chicken thigh meat (served cold, but whatever) tasted exactly like what my friend and I both agreed to be "mall chicken." It was nostalgic, toothpick-sample worthy, and really tender and sweet.
The rest of the salad, however, felt more like a slaw, mixed with chopped broccoli, shredded green cabbage, kale, edamame, and deep-fried crispy carrot sticks. (The fried carrot sticks are good, but also, why? The sodium in this salad is out of control.) The tangerine soy ginger dressing and teriyaki drizzle were way too syrupy to be considered salad dressings, which should be tangy and refreshing!
Southwest Caesar Salad with Chicken
With the highest quantity of calories and fat of the entire menu, this salad for $14.89 is suspect. And while that's not a reason to avoid a dish, the lack of nutrition was a bit of a red flag: what is Panera doing to this salad to infuse it with calories?
And is it tasty? The drizzle of chipotle aioli, plus tortilla chips, isn't helping in the nutrition or flavor department, and the Caesar dressing didn't have any southwestern flavor to it (it's not supposed to, apparently, but it was still disappointing). The chunks of parmesan and diced avocado just don't mesh and the grilled chicken strips were just a little too juicy for a Caesar. Priced at $14.89, it's a flop.
Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken
If I'm going to eat a salad, I want a bunch of vegetables, not chips (no hate to chips, but they serve a different purpose). Priced at $12.99, this salad was heavy on the crunchy wontons, sliced almonds, and sesame seeds, blanketing the romaine as if to disguise the fact that this is actually a salad, not a fun crispy side dish.
The "Asian Sesame Vinaigrette" (not sure what part of Asia this is supposed to be inspired by, but okay) was way too sweet, and though it had a nice sesame flavor, I just couldn't enjoy the greens coated with sticky sesame candy and its slew of beige-hued accouterments. I wanted to like it, but sadly, was let down.
Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken
This salad for $12.99 was the dark horse of the taste test! Never would I ever pick a salad with apple chips and a "sweet white balsamic vinaigrette," but I was pleasantly surprised by all the nice crunch and flavor in this salad. Yes, the dressing was way too sweet for my tastes, but only using half the dressing and shaking the salad dispersed it well enough, so the mild gorgonzola compensated for flavor.
Sure, the entire bowl had tasting notes similar to an autumnal candle, but it was cozy, the mixed greens were fresh, and the toasted pecans added an extra crunch. Half of this salad and a bowl of creamy soup would be very nice on a cold day.
Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken
Cobb is my second-favorite style of salad, and this one for $15.19 holds up. The Green Goddess dressing was a bit thick but very herbal, the fresh basil shining through in the yogurt-based sauce. The hard-boiled egg was well cooked (no gray!) and the mix of romaine and spring greens had just enough crunch and salad-spot freshness.
The avocado was just soft enough, the bacon bits salty but crispy, and the grilled chicken breast was juicy (definitely soaked in some solution to keep it that way, but fine).
For just $9.99, the Greek Salad is my go-to at Panera, and after tasting through the whole menu, it still stands strong. The greens are crisp, the olives and pepperoncini are briny, and the feta is sprinkled throughout the salad. The dressing is also tangy and well seasoned, not sweet like most of the dressings at Panera.
I'm also a fan of the free substitutions in Panera's mobile app, adding cucumbers, basil, and extra tomatoes to this salad, all for under $10. It's a bargain! It's tasty! It goes well with the complimentary baguette, and it's fun to shake up before you eat.