Sunday, May 11, 2003

Fast-food salad wars


Of Big Three, McDonald's sets pace with new trio and Newman's Own

By Mindy Merrell
The Tennessean

Last week we snagged a select group of varying appetites, manned them with forks and, using McDonald's recent introduction of dinner salads dressed with Paul Newman's signature salad dressings as our hook, went to work tasting the latest salad offerings from the Big Three - Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King.

Sure they've had salads for a while, but something's up with the greens. Salads are no longer the menu's forgotten stepsister but Cinderella decked out for the ball, all for about $3.99.

Here's what we found:

Wendy's Garden Sensations

Appearance counts and kudos to research and development for using all their senses in these colorful, tasty and texturally pleasing salads in sizeable portions. The chicken chunks were tender and tasty.

• Mandarin Chicken. Our tasting panel's favorite. Trendy Asian arrives at fast food with an ensemble that combines sweet, salty, savory and crunchy in one bowl. Salad features chunks of chicken, mandarin orange segments, roasted sliced almonds, crispy noodles and Oriental sesame dressing.

• Taco Supreme. Here is a salad that actually can satisfy a big appetite. It comes with chopped tomato, shredded cheese, red onion rings, a generous cup of Wendy's chili, a bag of chips, salsa and sour cream. Sturdier lettuce works better here, so don't expect any baby greens and only an occasional speck of romaine. How nice to assemble your own tasty accessories as you like them.

• Chicken BLT. Not our favorite, but nonetheless a solid mix of greens, a few grape tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, shredded cheese, tender chunks of chicken and crumbled bacon. It seemed stingy on the bacon for a salad dubbed a BLT. They suggest it be served with honey mustard regular or low-fat dressing. Too bad its cloying sweet taste overpowered the outfit.

• Spring Mix. The same mix as above, but without the meat. This time salad adornments are a packet of salty, sweet honey roasted pecans and a suggested tangy house vinaigrette. Skip the way-too-sweet neon orange French dressing.

McDonald's

Snappy dressers know that all it takes is one strong accessory to make an outfit. These new premium salads are tastefully accented with Newman's Own natural salad dressings. Good work, McDonald's, on your exclusive alliance with Paul Newman. Have it your way and choose either slices of crispy breaded chicken or seasoned marinated chicken strips. Both had appeal to our tasters.

• California Cobb. This salad is a blend of "premium greens" (mostly iceberg) with grape tomatoes, paper-thin carrot slices, and bits of blue cheese, smoky bacon and rubbery hard-cooked egg. Wow, this is a potent mix for the king of mass marketing especially when dressed with Newman's Own California Cobb, a full-bodied tart vinaigrette. Just like the gauzy peasant look, you either love it or hate it.

• Chicken Caesar. Here the "premium greens" and familiar grape tomato vegetable mix are classically dressed with grated Parmesan, garlic croutons and Newman's Own Creamy Caesar Dressing. This ensemble will last for seasons and take you anywhere.

• Chicken Bacon Ranch. This is one is for the most conservative dressers and their children. You can't beat good ranch dressing, two kinds of cheese, and a little bacon for getting kids to eat their greens. Not high fashion, but comfy play clothes.

Burger King

OK, the fairy godmother hasn't quite reached Cinderella here yet. These salads need a makeover quick if they want a chance to dance with Prince Charming. Don't they know that even the natural look is high-maintenance? They do offer classic Kraft dressings, a benchmark of quality.

• Chicken Caesar. Cinderella is still scrubbing the floor in this one. Ho-hum iceberg lettuce, pallid chicken, and without the croutons we were supposed to get. Completely lifeless on the plate.

• Garden. Simply a decent iceberg side salad with a little more color this time and big unripe tomato slices that would be much more comfortable on a burger. But, what more do you want for that so unfashionably orange sweet Catalina dressing?

Survival odds

Quality control and food costs will determine these products' success. We were impressed with the overall freshness of the salads. And dressing counts. McDonald's use of Newman's Own is a brilliant move and made our tasters take note. Burger King needs to fix up to keep up. Wendy's, please revisit your dressings, you know how a pair of cheap shoes can ruin an otherwise stylish outfit.

The final fork

These fast-food salads are heavy on the cheap ingredients with just a speck or two of an exotic green deliberately placed in view. Nevertheless, they are decent knock-offs of what's served in full-service restaurants.




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