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The Best-Tasting Salads In The Fast Food Universe, Ranked

Fast food salads don’t have to be some sort of compromise. Sure, the average salad isn’t as food coma-inducing and glorious to behold as a juicy, decadent cheeseburger — with its tower-like construction, fried onion rings, and strips of fatty bacon — but a good salad can still be satisfying. Plus it’s healthier than chomping on a fried chicken and bacon sandwich. Even when salads go the decadent route, which they sometimes do, they’re usually built in a way that’s balanced. You’ve got your protein, ample veggies, and a good amount of fiber to help it all digest.

Seriously, a quality salad can be just as good as anything else on the fast food menu. Trust us, we’re no strangers to the genre.

But alas, “a quality salad” is increasingly rare these days. After various health crazes demanded salads, most fast food establishments seem to have accepted that people come for the nuggets, fries, and double cheeseburgers — not limp lettuce. When I set out on this ranking, I found that many restaurants have either dropped salads from their menu entirely (McDonald’s) or are putting in so little effort they might as well drop them (Burger King, who else?).

A lot of fast food salads are bad, but I tried as many as I could lay hands on anyway. Please note: this won’t be a ranking of fast food’s healthiest salads (for the healthiest fast food meals, click here). Instead, I focused on each establishment’s best tasting salad, regardless of calorie count, and used whatever stock dressing came with the salad, no exceptions.

Ready to see the ranking? Great! But first…

What Makes A Fast Food Salad Good?

The biggest factor is the lettuce. A great salad isn’t just lettuce, but leafy greens are the foundation of salad, so if you build on a bad foundation your house will collapse onto itself and kill you. I mean, the salad will. Okay, a bad salad won’t kill you, but you’ll wish it did.

Then there is balance, the ratio of lettuce to toppings, and the quality of the toppings themselves. Finally, construction, in which we’ll answer the simple question: Is this well put together? Dressing, while essential, will have little effect on our overall ranking because ultimately you’re going to pick whatever dressing appeals to you most or whatever comes stock with the salad.

Okay, let’s get to eating some leaves.

12. Burger King — Side Garden Salad

Burger King

Calories: 322 (without dressing)

The Salad:

To be fair to Burger King, until recently they had a pretty decent salad called the Chicken Garden Salad. For whatever reason, it’s not available anymore but if it was we wouldn’t be giving Burger King the bottom spot — that would’ve gone to Dairy Queen. Having said that, what is available, BK’s Side Garden Salad, is easily the worst tasting, most low effort salad in all of fast food. ‘

Think about what stocking a salad means for a fast food restaurant: they have to have fresh ingredients on hand. The sort of fresh ingredients you need to put together a salad are perishable, which means every week Burger Kings across the country are throwing away salads, because no one is ordering them. Just ditch the salad completely BK, who do you think you’re attracting with this thing, the health-conscious?

Burger King describes its salad as having a “blend of premium lettuces garnished with juicy tomatoes, home-style croutons, a three-cheese medley, and your choice of KEN’s salad dressing,” and everything about that statement is a lie, except for the dressing part.

This is by no means a premium blend of anything, it’s just iceberg lettuce. The tomatoes are a pale shade of orange, and the amount of cheese is so minuscule that it looks like Burger King is rationing cheese for the apocalypse. All the calories from this thing come from the croutons, and if you have this salad, they’re the only thing you’ll want to finish.

If you order this salad you’re given the choice of Ranch, Italian, or Lite Honey Balsamic Dressing. I opted for the Honey Balsamic, but no amount of Ranch or Italian could have fixed this thing. It has absolutely nothing going for it.

The Bottom Line:

The best thing about this salad is the croutons (which are average, for croutons) so you’re better off throwing away the lettuce and just eating those. Does that feel wasteful? Imagine being Burger King. Imagining all the landfills they must be filling up with discarded side salads makes our brain hurt.

Find your nearest Burger King here.

11. Dairy Queen — Crispy Chicken Strips Salad

Dairy Queen

Calories: 470 (Without dressing)

The Salad:

Make no mistake, Dairy Queen’s salad is just as bad as Burger King’s side salad, it just has more stuff in it, so we can’t deny that it’s a better meal all around. This salad features a mix of almost flavorless iceberg and romaine lettuce, the lettuce bed serves as mostly texture in the mouth. Some red cabbage, carrots, and the occasional diced tomato supply some subtle sweetness, but all of the real flavor comes from the chunks of fried chicken strips and the smokey bacon bits.

As far as the protein goes, it’s pretty bland. The salt and black pepper-flavored fried chicken feels out of place on this salad, the seasoning on the batter doesn’t really compliment the salad, the flavors clash. The Crispy Strips Salad comes with Ranch dressing but Dairy Queen also offers Honey Mustard and Blue Cheese. I went with the Ranch because it seemed like it would pair the best with bacon.

It’s Hidden Valley. It’s good, but it can’t save this salad.

The Bottom Line:

Might as well be last. Don’t order this, it has nothing going for it, just get that soft serve instead. Fun fact about Dairy Queen’s website, it says the salad “pairs great with…” and this isn’t a joke: An Oreo cookie Blizzard. A Coke. A Vanilla Shake and a Hot Fudge Sundae.

Eating any of those might be enough to erase the memory of eating this awful salad, so I guess Dairy Queen is right!

Find your nearest Dairy Queen here.

10. Carl’s Jr — Charbroiled Chicken Salad

Carl

Calories: 280 (Without dressing)

The Salad:

This salad almost works. Carl’s Jr at the least tried when they put together this salad, they just didn’t try very hard. Iceberg lettuce makes up the bulk of this salad, and it’s not even crisp, it’s limp and leafy, giving the salad a sort of dirt taste to it. For the toppings, Carl’s Jr went with red onions, which add a nice spicy bite to the salad, croutons for texture, a cheese blend (not enough of it), tomato, and charbroiled chicken.

The chicken is good, more often than not it’ll be dry but it has a nice charred flavor that pairs well with the balsamic vinaigrette, which also helps with the dryness. A better blend of lettuce and another veggie in there would do a lot to make this salad more palatable.

For now, it’s just okay.

The Bottom Line:

If someone offers you a free one, go for it, it hits a spot. Not the spot, but a spot.

But don’t pay for it, it’s not worth your money.

Find your nearest Carl’s Jr. here.

9. Arby’s — Crispy Chicken Entreé Salad

Arby

Calories: 430 (Without dressing)

The Salad:

We’ve finally come to our first decent salad. Carl’s Jr. almost had us but… didn’t stick the landing. This one surpasses it, handily.

Arby’s Crispy Chicken Entrée Salad earns its name — this is a meal, not just a side order. Arby’s went with an iceberg and leaf lettuce blend here, it’s not a spring mix like what we’re always secretly hoping for, but at least it’s decent lettuce. The lettuce is crispy with a nice texture that convinces us it hasn’t been sitting in a cold case for as long as legally possible.

Strips of diced bacon and chicken tenders give us our protein, and they’re both pretty good. The chicken retains its crispiness and features a tender bite and the bacon is crunchy and smokey, altogether they combine for a great mouthfeel. Rounding things out are some diced tomatoes and shredded cheddar. Just add one more vegetable in there Arby’s and you’ll really have something that can be described as good, not just decent.

The dressing Arby’s offers here is a Marzetti Buttermilk Ranch, it’s heavy and, honestly, I think the salad is better without it or with one of Arby’s other dressings like Dijon Honey Mustard, or Balsamic Vinaigrette.

The Bottom Line:

Ironic that the place that boasts so much about having “the meats” also has a pretty decent salad. Sorry Arby’s, secret is out.

Find your nearest Arby’s here.

8. Jack in the Box — Southwest Chicken Salad

Jack in the Box

Calories:340 (Without Dressing)

The Salad:

A couple of years back, Jack in the Box replaced their chicken tenders with a new recipe and it’s the worst move the chain could’ve ever made. Those old chicken strips were delicious and they doubled as the centerpiece of each of Jack in the Box’s handful of salads. That means that now Jack in the Box’s salads all come with the new fried chicken, which definitely makes them taste worse than they did before.

We also have the option of grilled chicken. Sorry, but it’s not better.

The grilled chicken tastes like your typical pre-grilled frozen chicken. When it’s not dry, it’s rubbery and has very little flavor. It’s just a protein to make your meal more substantial, might as well be tofu.

Things aren’t all bad with this salad though. It comes with a serving of very juicy and flavorful grape tomatoes, thick-grate shredded cheddar which supplies some sharpness, a serving of black beans, and my favorite bit, the roasted corn. To top it all off, we’re giving a packet of creamy southwest dressing (think a sweet slightly zesty ranch) and some corn chip-like croutons, which taste like stale Fritos, served on a bed of romaine and iceberg lettuce. The lettuce suffers from a limp texture, but the flavor is negligible enough for it to not really be an issue, and the corn, beans, tomato, chicken, and chips provide all the texture you need.

The Bottom Line:

This used to be better, these days it’s a mere shadow of what it once was.

Find your nearest Jack in the Box here.

7. Del Taco — Signature Taco Salad With Fresh Guac

Del Taco

Calories: 510

The Salad:

When you hear “Taco Salad,” it’s fair to think you’re going to be eating your salad out of a bowl made from an oversized fried tortilla. The kind you can break pieces off of and use as a makeshift spoon to eat your salad with. This isn’t really that. Del Taco just served their salad with a side of salsa and threw some tortilla chips in it and called it a day.

We’d knock them down the ranking for that low effort if everything else here didn’t work. Luckily, it does. The tortilla chips feel half-assed, but they’re appreciated, and perfect for utilizing to scoop up some guacamole and black beans from the bed of iceberg and romaine. Sour Cream acts as a dressing here, but I think it’s not needed with the serving of guacamole and salsa they give you.

Instead of throwing tomatoes into this salad, Del Taco did one better and included Pico de Gallo as well as some fresh cilantro weaved in with the iceberg and romaine, giving the salad a fresh aftertaste. The shredded cheddar acts as a nice bit of garnish and the beef crumbles would be better swapped for chicken, but at the very least they add an interesting flavor to the whole thing.

If Del Taco had some roasted corn in here, this thing would be so much better.

The Bottom Line:

Pretty good, a few ingredients and substitutions away from being great.

Find your nearest Del Taco here.

6. El Pollo Loco — Double Chicken Avocado Salad

El Pollo Loco

Calories: 310 (Without dressing)

The Salad:

This salad is a significant step up from Del Taco. The Double Chicken Avocado Salad doesn’t have a single weak component. A heavy double serving of chicken breast sits on top of a lettuce blend that features iceberg, romaine, cilantro, the occasional spinach leaf, cilantro, and a few other lettuce fillings. It’s the first salad we’ve hit with an adequate mix of greenery and, if that wasn’t enough to impress us, the chicken is perfectly juicy thanks to a marinade that includes paprika, citrus, pepper, and salt.

Roasted corn, a few slices of ripe avocado, cotija cheese, and pico de gallo join the juicy chicken to complete the salad which is served with your choice of creamy cilantro dressing or a Mexican vinaigrette. I’ve only had the cilantro dressing, which tastes to me like a simple cilantro-based cream sauce. It’s good, but I prefer El Pollo Loco’s avocado salsa. The inclusion of fresh avocado is great, it adds to the heartiness of the salad, ensuring a single order with no additional sides is enough to have you full and satisfied.

The Bottom Line:

Overall this is a great option, health and flavor-wise. There isn’t a lot El Pollo Loco could do to make this better than it already is.

Find your nearest El Pollo Loco here.

5. Chipotle — Custom Salad Bowl

Chipotle

Calories: Varies

The Salad:

Chipotle doesn’t rank highly for us in any category, even “Mexican” style fast food, but it’s hard to deny that they make a pretty great salad. Or rather, we should say, you make a really great salad because you’re in charge of putting this thing together. Because of that, this entry will be less of a review of the actual salad and more a suggestion for how I think you should build one out.

Doing it right is simple: you start with a bed of romaine — unfortunate, but that’s what Chipotle gives you (and it’s mostly the spines). From there, things look up with your choice of black or pinto beans (for a salad I like black, you do you), and then fajitas, which you should definitely get.

Add your protein of choice to that (check our Chipotle protein ranking here), and you’re already looking at a pretty decent salad. But you’re going to take it to the next level by adding corn, guacamole, a light spoonful of the salsa of your choice, and of course, cheese. This is hands down the best cheese you’re going to find on any salad in fast food, period. It’s freshly grated Monterey jack — sweet, salty, and a little nutty. The cheese beats every salad ranked ahead of this one, but unfortunately for Chipotle, this isn’t a cheese ranking.

The salad is served alongside a honey vinaigrette. It’s sweet with a nice subtle tang. The only thing really holding this salad back is the romaine. Yes, we know we’ve been beating this drum and we admit romaine is better than iceberg lettuce, but on its own… it still sucks.

The Bottom Line:

If you like hot ingredients on top of your salad, this is one of the very best you’ll find in the fast food universe. You’ll just have to settle for some lackluster lettuce.

Find your nearest Chipotle here.

4. Wendy’s — Apple Pecan Salad

Wendy

Calories: 460 (Without dressing)

The Salad:

I think all of Wendy’s salads are pretty solid, none of them feel like afterthoughts, they each really taste like Wendy’s actually tried to formulate a flavorful salad. My favorite is easily the Apple Pecan, which features chopped red and green apples alongside dried cranberries, pecans, blue cheese crumbles, and a serving of your pick of Wendy’s chicken — homestyle, spicy, or grilled.

I almost always go with the spicy, even though it totally clashes with the sweet mix of crisp apples (Fuji and Granny Smith) and tart deeply sweet cranberries. The lettuce blend is a spring mix, though there isn’t much variety — it’s mostly romaine, green leaf, and I think some chard, but my favorite inclusion is the Pomegranate Vinaigrette dressing. It’s sweet, slightly sour, with a depth of flavor that really works harmoniously with the cranberries and apples.

The Bottom Line:

A great fast food salad. It’s not as premium in its execution as the salads that will follow, but Wendy’s does not disappoint. The salads earn their place amongst Wendy’s equally stellar burgers and chicken sandwiches, making the choice to go green never feel like a compromise.

Find your nearest Wendy’s here.

3. Panera — Fuji Apple Salad

Panera

Calories: 560

The Salad:

Panera currently has eight very delicious and well-constructed salads. Choosing just one was admittedly pretty tough, especially because recently Panera ditched my favorite, the Thai Spicy Salad. For this ranking, I went with the Fuji Apple Salad. It features tender slices of roasted chicken, sweet grape tomatoes, dried apple, red onions, pecans in place of croutons (genius), and Gorgonzola cheese atop a bed of arugula, romaine, baby kale, and red lettuce leaves. You have no idea how happy it makes me to list all of those different lettuces, which provide a blend of earthy green flavors and the right balance of sweet and bitter.

Each forkful is so damn flavorful and has an amazing texture thanks to the dried apple, which is simultaneously crunchy and sweet, and the toasted pecans. And that’s without using the sweetened white balsamic vinegar that comes stock with this salad.

I have no criticism about this one, even the chicken manages to be flavorful and not dry. It’s just a great salad through and through.

The Bottom Line

Packed with natural sweetness and a phenomenal texture. This is a near-perfect salad in the fast food space.

Find your nearest Panera here.

2. Chick-fil-A — Cobb Salad

Chick-fil-A

Calories: 850

The Salad

Until Popeyes came around, people wouldn’t shut up about how good Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwiches are. They’re still great and so are the nuggets, but not enough people talk about how well-executed their salads are, particularly the Cobb. It’s hard to make a salad with fried chicken nuggets on top of it bad, but the chicken doesn’t deserve all of the credit, it’s joined by roasted corn, bacon bits, grape tomatoes, Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese, and a sliced hard-boiled egg.

The salad sits on a bed of mixed greens. They’re… okay. I would’ve preferred more arugula and spinach but I’ll take what I can get considering everything else in the salad is good.

I have no idea what schedule Chick-fil-A prepares their hard-boiled eggs on, but everything tastes really fresh here, from the chicken that tops your salad, to the egg, corn, and even the crumbled bacon. Instead of croutons, Chick-fil-A supplies you with a packet of what they call charred tomato and crispy red bell peppers, they taste kind of like Chex Mix to me — I usually ditch them.

Chipotle suggests you top this salad with Avocado Lime Ranch Dressing. It’s good, a little tangy but very hearty and while I don’t usually like Ranch on a salad, it feels appropriate. If you don’t want fried chicken you can opt for grilled nuggets, a cold or warm grilled filet, a spicy filet, or chicken strips. I’ve never felt a reason to choose anything other than nuggets, call me crazy.

The Bottom Line:

If you’ve only had Chick-fil-A’s famous sandwich, give the salad a try. It really holds its own against the entire menu, and you still get nuggets in the process.

Find your nearest Chick-fil-A here.

1. The Habit — Super Food Salad

Calories:780

The Salad

Wow, I mean, where do I even begin — this salad is fantastic. It’s built on a base of garden salad mix, which includes romaine (of course), baby kale, red and green leaf lettuce, and other assorted greens, topped with dried cranberries, quinoa, cucumbers, and julienned carrots. Let’s just talk about that gathering of flavors. The lettuce blend leans on the more bitter and earthy side but it’s counterbalanced with the intense tart sweetness of the cranberries while the cucumbers add a nice refreshing crispness to each bite and the quinoa and carrots give you something more textured to chew on.

All of those combine to deliver a great mouthfeel that when, coupled with the dressing (it’s tossed, unless you ask otherwise), is capable of making your mouth water.

Those qualities alone make it better than so many of the salads on this list, but to top it off The Habit adds freshly grilled chicken breast to the salad, and it’s easily its best feature. It’s tender, full of charred citrus flavor, and you get a lot of it. The salad is tossed in a kale pesto vinaigrette which makes the whole thing taste incredibly fresh and healthy and adds a lot of depth to this already flavorful salad.

And then The Habit goes ahead and throws feta on the thing. It’s perfect.

The Bottom Line

Probably the only salad that I’ve ever craved. This is actually a reason to go to The Habit, and I think it easily beats out their burgers. Wow — that’s something I’ve never said about a single salad until now.

Find your nearest Habit Burger here.

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