Spotted Salamander at Shrimp Salad Stuffed Avocado Salad

Shrimp Salad Stuffed Avocado Salad at Spotted Salamander

I may as well tell you that the working title for this cover package was “Non-Bulls#!t Lunchtime Salads of Columbia.”

Salads can be a real slog. If you’re in the habit of ordering salads, you’ve probably been served Greek salads swimming in dressing, the lettuce wilted with oil. You’ve been served garden salads consisting mainly of two massive slices of onion, a few ice-cold cherry tomatoes and a dusty crouton. I love a sushi house salad, with its carrot-ginger dressing and crunchy iceberg pieces, but it is not a place to look for originality.

But salads can also be glorious — a place for a restaurant to display its creativity or its commitment to fresh ingredients, well cut and combined.

Of course, people eat salads for different reasons. Some people like lettuce. Some are trying to cut calories. Some are avoiding carbs, or sugars, or gluten. And some just like the creative palette that a salad offers, a welcome change from the sandwiches and meat-and-threes that populate Columbia’s lunch landscape.

As for me, I feel about salads the way comedian Mitch Hedberg felt about rice: “Rice is great if you’re really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.” Eating a salad takes time. It takes lots of forkfuls and chewing. It’s a contemplative act. You can’t mindlessly scarf down a salad; you have to work at it. I like that.

And so, as we launch into the New Year, we present you with this list of some worthwhile and surprising salads around the Midlands. There’s something for everyone here, from the meaty to the wispy-spare.

A planning note: Every place on this list is open for lunch, but not every day, so call or hop online before you go. Some of them are also open for dinner.

What did we miss? Let me know at editor@free-times.com. — Eva Moore

Tazza Kitchen Crunchy Potato and Arugula Salad

Crunchy Potato and Arugula Salad at Tazza Kitchen

What: Crunchy Potato and Arugula Salad

Where: Tazza Kitchen, 4840 Forest Dr., Suite 20, 803-782-0760

Cost: $8

The kale salad at Tazza used to be my jam, and it’s still a solid choice. But the crunchy potato and arugula salad is basically the greatest salad of all time. The potatoes are light and crispy, the arugula delightfully spicy, and the house-smoked mozzarella is creamy and subtle. Toasted almonds give it a little more crunch and protein and the maple vinaigrette is not as sweet as it sounds. The salad is large enough to share as an appetizer, but why share when you could eat the whole thing? It tastes like lunch in a European café, so go ahead and have a glass of sauvignon blanc. The combination will leave you feeling satisfied but not overly full, with plenty of energy to head across the parking lot for a few new shirts from the J. Crew sale rack. Tazza does salads right, adding just enough protein to make them hearty without overloading them with cheese and dressing. The proportions are downright sophisticated. — Anne Wolfe Postic

What: Tuna Plate

Where: Immaculate Consumption, 933 Main St., 803-799-9053

Cost: $8.20

I feel like people forget about Immaculate Consumption. It’s on the border between the worlds of the university and the State House, belonging fully to neither. It roasts and brews wonderful coffee — but its real magic is that it serves tons of super-fresh vegetables. Immac’s tuna salad is made with line-caught albacore; it tastes like tuna, not mayonnaise, with fresh dill and a dab of yogurt. The Tuna Plate features the tuna salad on top of bite-sized pieces of various vegetables — red pepper, mushrooms, shredded carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and more — and lettuces. It’s simple and light and very good. — Eva Moore

929 Kitchen Korean Beef Brisket Salad

Korean Beef Brisket Salad at 929 Kitchen

What: Korean Beef Brisket Salad

Where: 929 Kitchen, 929 Gervais St., 803-764-3825

Cost: $14

929 Kitchen’s beef brisket salad is perfect for when you want a huge plate of Korean beef, but you need to keep it lean. The thin slices of beef are flavorful and cool. The citrus vinaigrette pulls the simple but hearty salad together, and you won’t leave feeling like a delicate flower who ate a salad for lunch. Bonus: You also won’t leave feeling like you need to take a nap at your desk. If you’re lucky enough to be sharing lunch with a friend, start with an order of 929’s gimbap — cooked rice, marinated beef, and veggies rolled in seaweed. Sure, it isn’t salad, but it’s just an appetizer, and it’s wrapped in seaweed, which is really good for you. Just promise you’ll share. — Anne Wolfe Postic

What: Italian Salad

Where:  Swanson’s Deli, 1332 Main St., Suite 7B, 803-343-3253

Cost: $7.49

Swanson’s is a low-key, counter-service deli inside the Arcade Mall. It has a cult following, and for good reason, as its sandwiches are tasty and its sides fresh and homemade. Anyway, this salad is a salty-protein extravaganza. A whole bunch of high-end deli meats — genoa salami, pepperoni and ham — and provolone cheese are cut into long slices and placed on a big bed of the freshest green leaf lettuce with cubed cucumbers and tomatoes. Add some housemade blue cheese dressing. Or balsamic vinaigrette, if you’re trying to cut calories — but if you’re trying to cut calories, maybe don’t order the salad covered in deli meats and cheeses. Order it out of pure joy. — Eva Moore

What: STP Salad

Where: Groucho’s, 611 Harden St., 803-799-5708 (other locations at grouchos.com)

Cost: $7.99

There are times when nothing but the Groucho’s STP Dipper will do, complete with its delicious 45 sauce. But did you know they will make the STP into a salad? All the awesome microwaved cold cuts, bacon bits and melty cheese of the original sandwich, plus 45 sauce, naturally. Served on top of crispy lettuce with the other vegetables you’d expect, like cucumbers and tomatoes, the cheese-covered meat is just as satisfying as it is on a sandwich. In fact, it’s even better, because you aren’t distracted by all the bread. The one downside is it comes with Captain’s Wafers instead of chips, but guess what. Buttery crackers are just as good as chips when you dip them in 45 sauce, so ask for an extra serving. This is a salad for those of us who grew up on the Dipper, but are mature enough for something a little more sophisticated. Ha, ha. Just kidding. A pile of meat over vegetables drowned in secret sauce isn’t exactly chic, but it’s so good. — Anne Wolfe Postic

Duke's Pad Thai crispy rice salad

Crispy Rice Salad at Duke’s Pad Thai Street Food and Noodle Bar

What: Crispy Rice Salad

Where: Duke’s Pad Thai Street Food and Noodle Bar, 904 Knox Abbott Dr., Cayce, 803-661-6455

Cost: $7

As delicious as pad thai, curries and drunken noodles can be, Thai cuisine is a vast and beautiful landscape of colors, textures and flavors waiting to be explored. This crispy rice salad at Duke’s is a very fine example of that. On the surface, this dish looks very familiar. You may ask yourself, why is this even called a salad? It is, in a way. There is a mixture of normal fried rice along with bits of deeply fried kernels of rice that crackle and pop like your favorite pork rinds. The kernels are salty and savory, with a bit of acidity from the spicy lime sauce and red onion clinging to the dish. Cilantro brightens it up and gives it that “salad” feel. Small, tender pieces of a sweet, light pink Thai sausage offers some contrast to the crispy rice kernels. All in all, it’s a fun dish with a ton of textures and different flavor profiles going on, reeling you in and keeping you coming for more until the last bite. — Bach Pham

What: Peanut Chicken Salad

Where: Publico, 2013 Greene St., 803-567-5738

Cost: $10.79

Publico is doing something right. Lots of things, actually, judging from the crowd. During a visit, you’ll see people of all ages enjoying all kinds of food. Who says Five Points is scary and awful? Not that crowd at Publico. The peanut chicken salad is refreshing and filling, with an Asian twist or two. The vegetables, a mix of napa and romaine lettuces, roasted red peppers, and crispy cucumber and carrots, are topped with flavorful and tender grilled chicken, cilantro lime gremolata, and peanut dressing. They recommend pairing it with a white or pale ale, but I think the dry house rosé is perfect for a spicy salad. All the best salads leave you feeling like you were treated to junk food but somehow managed to walk away with plenty of energy. Publico’s peanut chicken salad is a true hero in that respect. Bonus: They’re removing parking behind the building to expand outdoor seating on the deck. (In other news, who knew they had parking back there?) — Anne Wolfe Postic

The Kingsman Bacon and Blue Salad

Bacon and Blue Salad at The Kingsman

What: Bacon and Blue Salad

Where: The Kingsman, 936 Axtell Dr., Cayce, 803-796-8622

Cost: $7.99

The good ol’ wood-paneled Kingsman in Cayce is known for fried stuff, ribeye burgers, and regulars who come in weekly, but their salads need to take a turn in the spotlight because they do them ridiculously well. The bacon and blue salad is of particular note thanks to the care given in the kitchen to this concoction. The usual salad ingredients of crisp green lettuce, tomato, cucumber, bacon, roasted red peppers, chopped egg, and blue cheese crumbles come together easily with a Parmesan peppercorn dressing, but the real treat isn’t what the salad is composed of, but how. And the how is delightfully chopped. You won’t find any huge hunks of tomatoes or lettuce leaves that need to be dissected any smaller by your hands on this chilled plate of simple salad-y goodness. It’s easy to get a taste of every component of this salad in each bite, which is really what one wants in a salad, right? And each item in the salad plays so well off of the next. The crispness of the leaves complements the creamy nuggets of blue cheese, and the crunch of bacon underscores the tang of the dressing in a way that keeps you shoveling more in, without feeling like you shouldn’t be. — April Blake

smallSUGAR Greens and Grains Bowl

Greens and Grains Bowl at smallSUGAR

What: Greens and Grains Bowl

Where: smallSUGAR, 709 Gervais St., 803-722-7506

Cost: $10

One good reason to order a salad at smallSUGAR is to save room for the pastries you’re going to want to eat when you see them on display. Another good reason is that this salad manages to be light and original yet totally satisfying. Tender kale, chard and other greens are tossed with chopped herbs (parsley and basil, I think, and probably others) and super-moist farro, wheatberries and amaranth. Long, waferlike slices of cucumber are arranged along the side, plus an avocado-green goddess dressing. Sprinkled over the whole thing is a crumbly aged cheddar cheese. You can add a soft-boiled egg for an additional $1; I’m sure that’s delicious but there’s a purity to the salad as-is that’s unusual. A note if you go: smallSUGAR doesn’t accept tips, instead paying its staff a living wage. — Eva Moore

What: Seasonal Green Salad with Chicken Salad

Where: Gourmet Shop, 724 Saluda Ave., 803-799-3705

Cost: $11

The nice thing about Gourmet Shop (well, one of the 6,296 nice things) is that all the food is recognizable. It feels indulgent, because you can always have a delightful piece of cheese, or my childhood favorite, a Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. But it’s easy to eat light there. The seasonal green salad topped with their famous chicken salad (which really is famous, at least around these parts) is a perfect low-carb treat. The salad is made of mixed greens topped with tomatoes, cucumbers, City Roots microgreens, feta cheese and house-baked croutons. Add their shredded, not-too-mayonnaise-y chicken salad and, folks, we have a ball game. To keep it low-carb, you should skip the side of baguette, but if you add enough butter, it’ll balance out the carbs anyway. (Note: I am not a dietician.) The dijon vinaigrette is spicy and delicious. (And if you have some left over you can dip the baguette in it.) — Anne Wolfe Postic

Il Giorgione Praianese Salad

Praianese Salad at Il Giorgione

What: Praianese Salad

Where: Il Giorgione, 2406 Devine St., 803-521-5063

Cost: $8

There’s one dish at Il Giorgione I can never resist. I have it after my first-course pizza (Romana with tomatoes, pecorino Romano, anchovies, capers and oregano), and often our second course of shared pasta (cacio e pepe these days). The Praianese salad is everything: generous pieces of housemade mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, a pile of piquant arugula, and a healthy serving of tuna. It comes with olive oil and lemon, but ask for balsamic vinegar as well. You’ll be glad you did at the end of your meal, when you use that one delicious piece of toasted bread to soak it all up. And when you’re finished with that, order a limoncello, an espresso with a side of amaro, or housemade gelato or sorbet. — Anne Wolfe Postic

Real Mexico Fajita Salad

Fajita Salad at Real Mexico

What: Fajita Salad

Where: Real Mexico, 2421 Bush River Rd., 803-750-8990

Cost: $7.50

There’s no wrong option at Real Mexico, and the salads are just as good as everything else. One in particular — the fajita salad — can give you the healthy feeling of a salad with the savory, tender chunks of chicken fajitas generously, really generously in fact, folded among the crisp green lettuce leaves. These little pieces of chicken might actually rival Chick-fil-A for juicy, flavorfulness. Shredded carrots and finely chopped tomatoes add to the vegetable intake ratio, and there’s a sprinkling of cheese, too. A dollop of guacamole and sour cream (add the sour cream for 50 cents extra, just do it) mixed into the salad make for all the dressing you could ever want here. You could, of course, order additional dressing, the options being ranch, Italian, or cilantro lime. For those who like a zesty bite with their salad, the cilantro lime is a delightful addition, or order it on the side to test its tang first. It goes well as a chip dip as well. All of this fills up a large chilled plate and will leave you feeling satisfied and not heavy — unless you nosh out on chips and salsa — and ready to take on 2019. Plus, with the fact that this salad comes out less than five minutes after ordering, you can be on your way to conquer whatever comes next. — April Blake

What: Steak Salad

Where: B.L.D. Diner, 4840 Forest Dr., Suite 26, 803-931-3595

Cost: $16

Trenholm Plaza is not what it was in the ’80s. (What is?) It’s gotten way cooler. The B.L.D. Diner is the latest cool addition to the Forest Acres food scene. They offer breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Ergo, their monogram.) During lunch and dinner, they have a top-notch steak salad. Four ounces of perfectly cooked-to-order filet is just enough. The salad also has roasted red pepper, marinated mushrooms, a smattering of blue cheese, pickled shallot and a light champagne vinaigrette. The proportions are perfect and the salad isn’t over-dressed. The vinaigrette just barely coats the other ingredients, expertly marrying the flavors. Play your cards right, and each bite of the salad has the perfect mix of juicy steak and salad-y salad. In case you’re wondering, you can totally have that steak at breakfast, with eggs and fingerling potatoes, any day of the week. You don’t even have to wait for the weekend and call it brunch. How great is that? — Anne Wolfe Postic

Tio’s Chipotle Orange Shrimp Salad

Chipotle Orange Shrimp Salad at Tio’s

What: Chipotle Orange Shrimp Salad

Where: Tio’s, 921 Sumter St., 803-252-7229

Cost: $12.99

Fried tortilla bowls are kind of dated, yes. Tio’s leans into it, adding a scattering of mandarin orange segments and pineapple to this salad to amp up the 1970s charm. Those touches aside, this is a modern and delicious salad. Fat shrimp are lightly pan-grilled and placed atop a tortilla bowl full of romaine. There’s a fresh corn relish in there, sliced cucumber and tomato, and a whole bunch of fresh avocado. It’s served with housemade creamy chipotle dressing — but because I am addicted to Tio’s Extra-Hot Salsa (that’s what it’s called, and it’s very different from the Hot), I just use some of that instead. In fact, this salad is moist enough that you could skip a dressing entirely if you like. — Eva Moore

What: Shrimp Salad-Stuffed Avocado Salad

Where: Spotted Salamander, 1531 Richland St., 803-556-2197

Cost: $12.95

While the Spotted Salad, with its sweet tea vodka-sauced pulled chicken and cornbread croutons, is probably more famous and more widely ordered, I know several people who revere the Shrimp Salad-Stuffed Avocado Salad. And when I go to Spotted Salamander, I have a hard time ordering anything else. Two avocado halves are lightly seared and packed with what’s billed as “old fashioned shrimp salad” — and yes, the salad is mayonnaise-based, but it’s not exactly buffet-style seafood salad. The shrimp are large; the creamy sauce pops with fresh dill and chopped celery. The entire assemblage sits atop a bed of greens with a side of red wine vinaigrette packed with more minced herbs. You can mingle the creamy avocado and shrimp salad together and toss them with the greens, or eat the parts separately. Sit on the front porch on a warm, sunny day with a glass of sparkling wine, and all will be right with the world. — Eva Moore  

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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