The end of summer is the perfect time to get your salad on, and the natural bounty of Santa Cruz County and environs makes this the perfect spot to optimize earth-to-table options. There are so many good ones around but we challenged Amber Turpin to narrow it down to a top 10.
There’s something about ordering a nice, fresh salad at a restaurant that leads to the feeling that you are making good life choices. When you bypass that tempting burger or plateful of pasta, it’s like a tiny hand giving you a pat on the back.
No need to think about silly caloric concerns with said salad (dressing is liquid so it doesn’t have any calories, right — just like that beer!). Like how many protein add-ons or nutty additions get heaped onto those beautiful greens. That would negate the whole decision-making process, now wouldn’t it?
Here in Santa Cruz County, we are so lucky to have access to the “Salad Bowl of the World” that is the Salinas Valley literally in our backyard — along with the amazing produce of our surrounding small farms. Now is the time to enjoy the summertime bounty gracing our restaurant menus in salads of all forms.
So we thought it was also a good time to choose our personal favorite top 10 just for fun.
Dharma’s is the guru of vegetarian restaurants, a landmark Capitola spot that has kept our community of health-conscious, ingredient-opinionated individuals sated long before food allergies were household terms. Here is where a seemingly simple tofu scramble breakfast order can take on paragraph form on the register tape, at a place that embraces additions, substitutions and menu tailoring. But the Gardener’s Salad needs no altering. Fistfuls of organic greens, shredded ruby-hued beets, carrots, cucumber rounds, cherry tomatoes, sprouts and sunflower seeds are piled on a plate, with your choice of six house-made dressings on the side. People are known to order pintfulls of the tahini-lemon variety … it would make cardboard a delicious bite.
- Details: 4250 Capitola Rd, Capitola.
- Hours: Open daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
It’s hard not to order one of everything at Mentone, David Kinch’s newest Michelin-honored hotspot in Aptos. But don’t think you should skip The Caesar Salad just because you end up eating four pizzas and a charcuterie platter, don’t pass it up. This version of the classic contains crisp, bitter radicchio, large shavings of premium parmigiano, hearty torn croutons, all generously coated with Mentone’s anchovy- and garlic-rich dressing. It is a prime example of how something simple done well is always the best choice.
- Details: 174 Aptos Village Way, Aptos.
- Hours: Open Wednesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.; Sunday 5-9 p.m.
3. The Seabreeze Cafe
Some of you might not even know that Linda’s (now officially called The Seabreeze Cafe) in Seabright serves lunch. Its breakfast is so popular, and rightfully so, that the main draw could mean lunch gets completely forgotten. But that would mean you would never try the giant Chef Salad, a classic choice that will keep you sustained all day long. This one comes on a plate bigger than your head, with a hefty amount of avocado, cheese, roasted turkey, tomato and hard-boiled egg. You can barely see the chopped romaine underneath all the toppings. And your choice of dressing, of course.
- Details: 542 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz.
- Hours: Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Closed Wednesday.
4. Carried Away
Perhaps Aptos isn’t your zone, but that shouldn’t mean you never seek out Carried Away, tucked in the Aptos Center near Outside-In. Chef Tom McNary founded this little cafe and ran it for 30 years before he jumped back into the fine-dining game over at Soif. When it opened in 1989, the whole aim was for upscale takeout … way ahead of this pandemic curve we find ourselves in now. Amazing sandwiches, great soups, and a huge variety of salads by the pound are on offer. It is really hard to decide which one is best between its two signatures, so I declare a tie between the French Green Lentil Salad with walnuts, roasted beets and feta and the Quinoa Salad with mango, almonds and curry vinaigrette. Get some of both and let me know which is your favorite.
- Details: 7564 Soquel Dr., Aptos.
- Hours: Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sunday.
5. Rustic Ales Kitchen
Any day now, the Pizza Pals guys who have taken over the Rustic Ales Kitchen inside the Sante Adairius Santa Cruz Portal will be slinging out their pies. But until then, we can settle for the other amazing menu items at this crafty beer haven. That includes the Avocado Green Goddess Salad, a lovely little pile of impeccable greens from a local farm, slathered in avocado green goddess dressing and a generous sprinkling of nutritional yeast. Get your B vitamins and a non-dairy cheesy flavor bomb, all at once. Plus there’s great beer.
- Details: 1315 Water St., Santa Cruz.
- Hours: Open Monday-Tuesday noon-7 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday, Sunday 12-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday noon-10 p.m.
6. Eastside Eatery
Another goddess to praise is the Foggy Goddess Salad over at Eastside Eatery. This is a big serving of organic romaine lettuce topped with avocado, cucumber, sunflower sprouts, tomatoes and hemp seeds and comes with its herby tahini dressing for a nice little twist on the traditional goddess dressing. There are loads of add-ons available, like prawns, tofu, even tri-tip, and you can choose various sizes. Let this salad be the star at your next party, if you opt for the extra-large “catering” size.
- Details: 800 41st Ave., Santa Cruz.
- Hours: Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Sunday 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
7. The Crow’s Nest
The ultimate salad could actually be the one you make yourself. Or maybe the five you make yourself, if you happen to be a big fan of the salad bar concept. A hallmark Santa Cruz destination, the Salad Bar at the Crow’s Nest is stellar for over-visiting. And if you are sitting up in the bar, those stairs practically burn off all that blue cheese anyway, right? This one has all the necessary things: kidney beans, sliced beets, black olives, many creamy dressings, and those addictive dark rye croutons. How many combinations can you create? It is endless.
- Details: 2218 E. Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz.
- Hours: Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Another great beer place is Lupulo, and it also has a great menu, so if you actually aren’t there for beer, it’s OK. The Rizada Salad takes kale to another level with the spot-on contrasting flavor of sharp cheddar, plus beets, toasted almonds and a “dark lemon vinaigrette.” I’m wondering if it is “dark” because of the addition of Bragg Liquid Aminos, which is my personal secret ingredient in any kale salad ensemble.
- Details: 233 Cathcart St., Santa Cruz.
- Hours: Open daily noon-8 p.m.
9. Soul Salad
That cool little retro building in Aptos that used to be Sushi On The Run is now an excellent place to grab a salad. In fact, that’s pretty much the entire situation at the aptly named Soul Salad. You can customize your salad, or just choose one of its awesome combos (you can customize those, too, if you want any of the add-ons or more dressing, etc.), and then the friendly crew tosses it up and in the blink of an eye, you have a huge bowl ready for noshing. It is a great concept, quick and efficient, plus all of the produce is 100% organic, which is great. The Santorini is a good choice if you appreciate the joys of Greek salads, plus this one has some nice touches, like pickled red onion, toasted seeds and dolmas. You even get a slice of bread with any salad order if you desire. Bonus.
- Details: 7957 Soquel Dr., Aptos.
- Hours: Open Monday, Thursday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m.
The award for best-named salad goes to Barceloneta and its Ibiza Hippie Salad. But the appeal doesn’t stop at the name — it is a really great salad with incredible textures and flavor contrast. Kale is the base, plus cubes of roasted sweet potato, freekeh (cracked young wheat), sunflower seeds and crispy chickpeas. The bright carrot-ginger vinaigrette adds a zippy burst of sunshine. Also, never skip the churros!
- Details: 1541 B Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.
- Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday 5-8:30 p.m.
Don’t miss these ones either!
- Gayle’s: Composed Grilled Salmon Salad
- Cafe Cruz: Chop Salad
- West End Tap & Kitchen: Farmers’ Market Salad
- Oswald: Dungeness Crab Salad
- Carpo’s: Salad Bar
What’s your list look like? Send us other favorites that deserve a mention to email@example.com.
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