By Chris Wang
Salad is an American staple — one that has been around for many years. Yet salad also seems to be one of trendiest new things on the menu lately. And of course, since we’re in Silicon Valley, our salad restaurants are VC backed.
Enter Tender Greens and Sweetgreen, two fast-casual chain restaurants that aim to serve seasonal, high quality produce, especially for the techy lunch rush. Tender Greens started in 2006 and has stayed mainly in California, while Sweetgreen was founded in Washington D.C. and has expanded primarily across the East Coast. They have become two of the country’s biggest players in the fast-casual salad market. Now, both brands have found their way to Palo Alto, and both receive a sizeable lunch rush. It’s like Shake Shack vs. In-n-Out, but for salads. I visited both restaurants multiple times to see which one was better.
Tender Greens is located among the stores of the Stanford Shopping Center. Although it features an assembly line-esque format when ordering, the actual process of preparing the food is not an assembly line — you place your order, go to the end of the line, pay and then your name is called when your food is ready. The menu spans salads to plates to sandwiches and soups, as well as sides, desserts and a daily special — it has great variety. The main issue I have with the menu at Tender Greens is that many of the menu items are not actually very healthy at all. A fried chicken sandwich clocks in at over 1000 calories, while grilled chicken cobb salad has a heart-clogging 300 mg of cholesterol. The daily special, which could be something like diver scallops over a creamy risotto, is hardly healthy either, especially when paired with one of the overly creamy soups. There certainly were items and pairings that fit the “healthy” theme, like rare tuna over a “Tender Greens” salad, dressed with a light vinaigrette. But to the inattentive diner, a meal at Tender Greens might as well be a dinner at The Cheesecake Factory.
On the other hand, downtown Sweetgreen is modeled a la Chipotle, where ingredients to your customizable salad are added down the line and are mixed together at the end when you pay — no waiting for your order here (although the wait may be longer at the start of the line). Sweetgreen’s menu is more focused, featuring only one item: salads. You can create your own salad, or choose from one of many composed salads (some of which are called “bowls”), such as chicken pesto parm. Although the selection of dishes is more limited, the salads are customizable and every single component of every salad at Sweetgreen looked healthy (apart from a few shavings of cheese). From the choice of arugula, spinach or lettuce to the low-fat vinaigrettes and the poached chicken breasts, Sweetgreen has done an impeccable job of sticking to health-conscious ingredients.
In terms of quality of food, however, Tender Greens wins hands down. All of the meats at Tender Greens are fresh and recognizable in appearance and flavor. Fried chicken has the perfect amount of seasoning and high quality white and dark chicken meat, while grilled chicken is clearly wholesome and not-heavily processed. Although the salads are not technically “customizable,” there is clearly care put into the flavors of each salad. The composition of daily specials, which feature ingredients you would not expect to find at a restaurant like this one, are also an unexpected delight.
The dishes at Sweetgreen don’t fail on taste either, but some of the ingredients are of questionable quality. The chicken breast seemed processed and heated rather than cooked, with no good sear on the outside. In addition, late in the day, the assembly line looked rather unkempt, with ingredients scattered all over the place. Pumpkin chips were burnt and added a bitter note to the salad, and several advertised toppings were unavailable. Still, the overall salad ate well, with the dressing tying all the flavors together.
Overall, while Sweetgreen offers a healthier and customizable menu, Tender Greens has the edge when it comes to ingredient quality, flavor combinations and service. Where are you trying out next for lunch?
180 El Camino Real #1050, Palo Alto, CA 94304
Price: $, expect to spend $10-$20 per person
581 Ramona St., Palo Alto, CA 94301
Price: $, expect to spend $10-$15 per person
Contact Chris Wang at chrwang ‘at’ stanford.edu.