Living in a time and place where you can get any decadent dish at any time--everything from sushi burritos to an entire restaurant devoted to bacon--can be overwhelming. Sometimes, all you want is a salad. Luckily, the Bay Area’s dual obsessions with good health and good food have ensured that at most restaurants, you’ll be able to find a salad or two on the menu. And increasingly, they’ll be interesting combinations of ingredients as considered as any traditional entree. These won’t be a dismal side salad, or the ascetic salads of the low-fat nineties. These are a whole meal in a bowl: filling, protein-heavy and decadent. Here are nine options for meal-worthy salads in Berkeley and Oakland. Some might not live up to their reputation as a healthy alternative (sadly, eating fried chicken in a salad is just as unhealthy as eating it in a sandwich) but regardless, we can guarantee you’ll end up satisfied.
Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood and unassuming from the outside, cult-favorite Champa Garden has been showered by praise since it opened in 2006, lauded alternately by Zagat, Yelpers and even Mayor Schaaf. Their menu, from owner Phuoc Nguyen and chef San Saechao, is a mix of Thai and Laotian dishes. One of their most iconic is the Nam Khao, a Laotian fried rice ball salad, with big chunks of fried rice and coconut mixed with peanuts, preserved pork, green onions, cilantro, lime and mint. A handful of chilis added scorching heat. Each aromatic bite manages to be slightly different, alternately sweet, spicy or salty. It’s served with lettuce and herbs, so you can make wraps, but it’s addicting enough to just eat shamelessly from the plate.
Southie, the cheaper, casual spinoff of neighboring Wood Tavern, is a place built around chef’s Yang Peng’s thoughtful, seasonal sandwiches. Luckily for those eschewing carbs, their salads are equally considered. A fried chicken salad--the surrounding ingredients change seasonally, but the fried chicken remains the same--was light and spring-y, mixing snap peas, mint, lemon, and mild feta in with the romaine and earthy quinoa. Topped with a creamy lemon dressing, it combined to balance out the mildly spicy fried chicken, resulting in a wonderfully crunchy and satisfying lunch.
Middle Eastern restaurant Ba Bite features sunny yellow walls, an impressive beer selection, and a menu from executive chef Mica Talmor that’s filled with customizable options, allowing you to get a smaller size or add various proteins. A big chunk of their menu is devoted to salads, and they offer a chance to try three of their salads mezza style for $15. A well-seasoned lentil and celeriac was satisfyingly crunchy and spiced with mint; and a butternut squash and quinoa salad was appealingly (to me, at least) reminiscent of a cold oatmeal: fruity and sweet from cranberries and pomegranate vinaigrette, with an interesting savory crunch from pumpkin seeds. A cabbage salad was alternately tangy from its vinaigrette and sweet from the inclusion of figs, and pleasantly crunchy.
3905 Piedmont Ave [Map]
Oakland, CA 94611
Ph: (510) 250-9526
Hours: Sun-Thu, 11am-8pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-8:30pm
Price range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)
Juice Bar Collective
Yes, the Juice Bar Collective makes excellent juices. That would be more than enough, given the limitations of their walk-in freezer-sized location in North Berkeley. Yet the worker-owned collective refuses to stop there. In addition to their smoothies and juices, they produce a menu of healthy and creative lunch items. The brown rice bowl is filling enough to silence a carnivorous naysayer: a giant portion of organic brown rice slathered with a peanut or tahini sauce and topped with one of their rotating salads. When I got it, I almost dropped my to-go box due to its unexpected heft. I ordered a large salad, and my box was filled to the very top with rice; a creamy, rich tahini sauce; and two of their salads: a crunchy broccoli salad and a massaged kale salad. It’s the kind of food you could probably make yourself, but really, they’re so much better at it: their salads, satisfying combinations of acid and crunch, are simple yet thoughtfully prepared, the skillful work of a place that’s been perfecting their recipes since the seventies.
Juice Bar Collective
2114 Vine St. [map]
Berkeley, CA 94709
Ph: (510) 548-8473
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm; Sat, 4pm-12am; Sun, closed
Facebook: Juice Bar Collective
Price range: $ (Entrees $10 and under)
If you felt like making a meal of appetizers, Lake Merritt neighborhood favorite Sidebar, guided by executive chef and owner Barbara Mulas’ sure hand, would be the place to do so. Their appetizer list is filled with small plates that are impressively sized, enough to distract from their tempting entree menu of modernized classics. One such dish is their chopped salad, a riff on the iconic chopped salad from La Scala in LA. It’s packed with chickpeas, fennel salami and thick slivers of aged provolone cheese. It’s salty, deliciously so, but the bitterness of the radicchio and the creamy herb dressing keep it balanced. It’s filling and rich, an intriguing mix of crunch and salt and fat that will make you forget all the sad appetizer salads you’ve had.
542 Grand Ave [Map]
Oakland, CA 94610
Ph: (510) 452-9500
Hours: Mon-Thu, 5pm-10pm; Fri, 5pm-10:30pm; Sat, 4pm-10:30pm; Sun, closed
Price range: $$ Starters ($8-$13), $$$ Entrees ($11-$28)
The centerpiece of Souley Vegan’s menu--put together by owner Tamearra Dyson--is the collection of impressively realistic, appropriately spicy, veganized takes on soul food classics. But hidden away on their menu is something you’d expect to see at any vegetarian or vegan restaurant: something called the Monster Salad. It’s appropriately gigantic, a towering pile of several types of greens, sprouts, cucumbers, and herbs all covered in a tangy cilantro sauce. Chunks of their signature spicy tofu add bulk and heat, resulting in a salad that’s so filling that even the smaller size I ordered took me two days to finish.
301 Broadway [Map]
Oakland, CA 94607
Ph: (510) 922-1615
Hours: Mon, closed; Tue-Thu, 11am-10:30pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11:30pm; Sun, 10am-3pm
Facebook: Souley Vegan
Price range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)
If you got to Stag’s Lunchette for breakfast, there are any number of tempting options, including their gooey breakfast sandwich or a bagel sandwich topped with a slab of smoked fish. A breakfast salad might sound downright boring in comparison. Thankfully, it’s not. A pile of mixed greens is topped with a runny oil-poached egg, and a collection of piquant additions--briny capers, pickled red onions and dabs of salty goat cheese--add tang to every rich bite. The best addition? A handful of mini tater tots, shatteringly crisp puffs of potato that add crunch and serve as a delightful alternative to croutons.
362 17th St [Map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (510) 835-7824
Hours: Mon-Fri, 8am-3pm; Sat, 9am-3pm; Sun, closed
Facebook: Stag's Lunchette
Price range: $$ Entrees ($11-$17)
The Bay Area has one of the largest Burmese communities in the United States and the number of Burmese restaurants grows every year, as diners become increasingly familiar with dishes like tea leaf salad (for more on the history of Burmese food in the Bay Area, read Jonathan Kauffman’s fascinating Chronicle article from last year). Now, there’s every type of Burmese restaurant, from trendy spots with artisan cocktails and hour-long wait times, to funky food trucks experimenting with bold flavor combinations. Oakland’s Grocery Cafe, put together by co-owner William Lue and cook Koot Aung, falls in the middle of the spectrum. It’s a tiny restaurant tucked away in a residential neighborhood (just a few blocks away from Champa Garden if you wanted to make a day of it!). It’s charmingly homey, with mismatched furniture and a peach mango body spray in the bathroom. The menu is small, focusing on a handful of common dishes, with most priced at $9. The tea leaf salad, a mix of fermented tea leaves, crunchy seeds, chickpeas and garlic was a more assertive version than I’ve had elsewhere: with a crunchier texture, from the inclusion of dried shrimp, and a stronger interplay of salt-sweet-bitter flavors.
It’s easy to see the transformation of Oscar’s in Berkeley--from a historic, dingy joint with grouchy workers serving satisfyingly old-school burgers into sweetgreen, a bright and sleek salad chain--as slightly nefarious, an almost too-perfect metaphor for the changing Bay Area. While I was first a little wary of the restaurant--so blazingly white! Workers with shirts that say “Beets, don’t kale my vibe”! Almost a nauseatingly perfect fit for healthy North Berkeley!--I found myself falling for its charms. It’s a bright, energetic environment, with loud music and piles of produce stacked high behind the counter.This is the fourth sweetgreen in California, and the first Bay Area location. The chain was founded in 2007 by Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru, Jonathan Neman Twith, a DC store, and they now have more than 30 locations throughout the country. The centerpiece of their menus, which include an impressive amount of local products, are the salads, tossed in front of you in giant metal mixing bowls. Customers can choose from a list of creative combinations (Spicy Sabzi, OMG Omega) or build their own salad. A chicken salad, from their seasonal spring menu, was excellent: a filling mix of kale and mesclun, tossed with roasted squash, asparagus, and roasted Mary’s chicken. A bright pesto vinaigrette added richness, and salty parmesan crisps contributed a welcome crunch. “I’ve been waiting for you to open for months,” a customer gushed on the first day, and it was easy to see why: sometimes, change is a good thing.