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I Tried the Most Popular Salads at 5 Chains & There's Only One I'd Get Again

Don't even think about building your own. The best-tasting salad of all the big chains is already built for you.
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Salad chains are booming and for good reason: people who are seeking healthier choices for lunch and dinner are skipping fast food in favor of leafy greens topped with good-for-you ingredients like tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, and lean forms of protein.

As a person who eats salad for at least one meal a day most days of the week, I'm very familiar with the popular salad chains and I love that they provide an opportunity to get my greens when I'm on the go. While I will usually opt to make a salad at home due to the cost—a signature salad from these restaurants runs around $13 to $15, and the price can go up from there, if you build your own—I was curious to test the most popular salads at these chains to see which one was the best.

To carry out this taste test, I went in-person to each restaurant and ordered the most popular salad on the menu (excluding build-your-own, which is pretty popular) and got the salad with all of the exact ingredients as described, including the suggested dressing.

If you're one of those people who love the sound of fresh ingredients being tossed into that big metal bowl, you'll want to read on to see which salads you should try and which ones to avoid. Read on to see the salads ranked from my least favorite to the absolute best!

Panera Bread Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken

panera salad
Ronnie Koenig

Per serving: 500 cal, 28 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 940 mg sodium, 27 g carbs (8 g fiber, 13 g sugar), 39 g protein

While Panera may be well-known for other items like soup and sandwiches, salad is featured on the menu here and is pretty popular with some customers. Unfortunately, this salad containing chicken, a blend of different greens, bacon, and egg was my least favorite one that I tried. Some sad salad greens were topped with bland chicken and the avocado, usually the best part of any salad, was unripe. The tomatoes weren't juicy and the addition of shredded, soft bacon was nasty. I did like the flavor of the goddess dressing, but that wasn't enough incentive to ever order this one again.

Rating: 1/10

Saladworks Sophie's Salad

saladworks salad
Ronnie Koenig / Eat This, Not That!

Per serving (1 salad): 430 cal, 18 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 780 mg sodium, (5 g fiber, 36 g sugar), 20 g protein

This salad has a lot of ingredients that I put in my homemade salads including bleu cheese, dried cranberries, and spring mix, so I was excited to try it. All of the ingredients looked good, except for the apples, which were brown—a big no-no, and they should have been discarded and not served to customers! This salad was otherwise yummy but the ratio of greens to toppings was way off. The heaping pile of dried cranberries, which contain a ton of sugar, was way too much.

And even though cheese is delicious, these items should be more like "accessories," as registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein calls them, not the main event. I pushed some of these toppings to the side because if eaten as served, this salad would have been anything but healthy. I would definitely go to Saladworks again, but next time, I'd specify the amount of ingredients to make this a healthier choice.

Rating: 5/10

Just Salad Honey Crispy Chicken Salad

just salad salad
Ronnie Koenig / Eat This, Not That!

Per serving (1 salad): 380 cal (without dressing), 15 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 1030 mg sodium, 38 g carbs (7 g fiber, 9 g sugar), 23 g protein

This bright and bountiful salad featuring greens, red cabbage, feta, roasted corn and quinoa was pretty, yummy, and filling. I liked the addition of quinoa as a healthy carb, and feta in a salad is always the right choice! I got this salad because of its popularity but if it were up to me, I'd never put crispy chicken in a salad, which kind of defeats the purpose of choosing a salad in the first place.

The dressing was too tangy, but overall, this was a very good salad, as the many different ingredients here all blended together in a satisfying way. I would definitely return to Just Salad. But, next time, I'll build my own salad creation.

Rating: 6/10

Sweetgreen Guacamole Greens

sweetgreen salad
Ronnie Koenig

Per serving (1 salad): 515 cal, 31 g fat (5 g saturated fat), 334 mg sodium, 27 g carbs (14 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 27 g protein

I've eaten at Sweetgreen before and have really enjoyed its fresh, crunchy, filling salads. I was actually surprised that this salad did not take my top spot, but when it came down to it, the chicken in this salad was not as plentiful or juicy as in the winning salad. While Guacamole Greens contains a delicious combination of avocado, tomatoes, red onions, and lime, I wasn't a fan of the fact that half an avocado was just scooped into the salad—it wasn't easy to cut with my fork, so it was not evenly distributed.

I also don't like the addition of tortilla chips in salad. I would have eliminated them and relied on the cabbage to provide the crunch. This was a very good salad, and whenever I see a Sweetgreen, it's hard to pass up.

Rating: 7/10

Chopt Kale Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken

chopt salad
Ronnie Koenig, Eat This, Not That!

Kale Caesar With Chicken: 420 cal, 17 g fat (6g saturated fat), 835 mg sodium, 28 g carbs, (7 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 35 g protein

Creamy Caesar Dressing (Per 30 g serving): 150 cal, 15 g fat (saturated fat 15 g), 210 mg sodium, 1 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 1 g protein

I've eaten at Chopt in the past, and I was disappointed in how aggressively they chopped their salads, turning a leafy green bowl into something resembling the consistency of coleslaw. That was not the case this time! The Kale Caesar Salad had the perfect blend of parmesan cheese, croutons, and leafy greens—so much so that the next day, I was thinking about going back for another one. (It's not often I can say that salad is addictive but this one was!)

My only complaint is that the chicken is additional here—this wouldn't be much of a salad without it! Still, the chicken was so good, with big juicy chunks throughout. I'll definitely be adding this salad to my rotation and I'm now excited to try other menu items at Chopt.

Rating: 9/10

Ronnie Koenig
Ronnie Koenig has written about food, drink, travel and culture for The New York Times, TODAY, The Atlantic and many others. Read more about Ronnie