Salad days: From vegan to beefy, six green giants you shouldn't take for granted

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

Salads are often taken for granted - if they're taken at all. This happens even in summer, when the weather can become an appetite-zapping bummer, and a tricked-out, fresh and big salad could be a complete and appealing meal. Unfortunately, the reality of sad crap mostly dumped out of some bag and ambushed by a factory-made dressing shatters this delicious dream of eating healthfully. It doesn't have to be that way.

From vegan to beefy, from chicken-scattered to full of seafood, here are delectable, not-boring! entree-sized salads that'll fill you up and make you happy. And when the yapping dog days of August demonstrate they still have plenty of stifling heat and humidity left in their tank, these won't-weigh-you-down salads will have you laughing all the way to the table.

Get it while it's Chilled

Alana's Food and Wine: Tomato Stack, $15

Sauntering off after presenting me her fantastic restaurant's all-time most popular dish, Chef Alana Shock giggled through a playful smile that "It's like the Big Mac, people are crazy for it! Actually, I've never eaten at McDonald's, but I hear it's good."

Like the Big Mac, the Tomato Stack is an iconic double-decker with special sauce, lettuce and cheese. And the Mac and the Stack both have the power to create addicts. That pretty much exhausts any similarities.

Available for another month or so, Alana's seize-the-summer creation is a cold dinner that warms your heart, a sorta New Orleans-inspired indulgence, and a timely celebration of ripe local tomatoes.

Because this is Alana's, most of the ingredients in this bang-on-the-table-it's-so delicious dish are rife with the flavor of Ohio. Of course, this excludes the East Coast-sourced sweet lump crabmeat, but otherwise, there are Buckeye-happy whisper-thin slivers of mild candy onions (Manchester Hill farm), Amish sharp cheddar cheese (Heini's), those thick slices of fruity-and-juicy, sun-nurtured tomatoes that help make this so special and timely (Toad Hill, Jorgenson Farm, Alana's backyard) and the glue holding everything together - duck eggs (Highland Natural) and Alana's famous Cabernet Buttermilk dressing (think local herbs-kissed, fancified ranch/green goddess).

It's Alive!

Harvest Pizzeria: Mean Green, $9 (meal-sized); $4.50 (half-sized); or $2, lunch-special-price when tacked onto $7 midday (11 a.m.-3 p.m.) pizzas

This vegan minor masterpiece is one of several salads (and starters, sides, sandwiches and desserts) that prove Harvest's brilliance isn'tlimited to pizza. I wanted to highlight this leafy budding legend because of its unusually heavy use of sprouted legumes.

Do an internet search, and you'll find a lotta people praising sprouted legumes as a health bonanza. Of course, you'll also find people vehemently disagreeing. What's sure is that consuming germinated vegetables like those featured here means eating "live plants" that offer easier-accessed nutrients. Now forget all that and just enjoy a uniquely delicious Mean Green salad.

Using tender local jewel lettuce and spinach as a foundation, the Mean Green is a piled-high, impeccably fresh and compelling texture-fest. Supplying earthy, nutty and grassy notes are its tail-sporting, distinguishing sprouted vegetables - like beans, chickpeas, sunflower seeds and possibly peanuts. Offsetting these potent flavors are sliced avocado, toasted sunflower seeds and Harvest's nifty Green Goddess dressing. Made with tahini and tofu, this verdant deity of a dressing isn't funky, but rather creamy, lively with acid and lightly fragrant of basil.

Grain of Truth

Westies Gastropub: Quinoa Salad, $10

The football Buckeyes will be playing again soon. What does that have to do with standout salads? Well, the OSU marching band's scandalous performances of "Stripped Ohio" may have dampened the mood lately - along with the recent heartbreaking news about Braxton Miller - but in less than 10 days, Urban's troops will bravely be taking the field again, and FYI: tall, dark and handsome Westies is the best damn sports bar in the land. And its genre-eclipsing kitchen does quinoa - a "hot" and healthy grain much in the news lately - better than many allegedly highfalutin places.

Too often served soggy or crunchy and flavor-challenged, Westies' superb version of quinoa has an every-grain-pops-gently texture reminiscent of caviar. What's more, instead of tasting bland, it's a taste-bud carnival of creamy, tart, sweet and nutty.

The quinoa itself shines because it's perfectly coated in a bright and zingy thyme vinaigrette. Providing extra dimensions are goat cheese, avocado, carrot brunoise, grape tomatoes, corn, toasted almond chips and the piece de resistance: a rich and tangy romesco sauce that serves as the delicious ground for the salad's complex circuits of flavor, color and texture.

Love Thy Neighborhood

Northstar Cafe: Beechwold Salad, $14

PSA: In Clintonville, this enormous and dynamic salad is called the Beechwold; at the Easton Northstar, it's the Townsfair; in the Cafe's original Short North branch, it's the (Victorian) Village Salad. Neighborhood names aside, the three salads are identical - and equally terrific.

The progressive local mini-chain, which created a veggie burger so amazing chompers don't covet their neighbor's Whopper, has done the same thing with this craveable salad. In other words, when you dig into this hulking and beautiful collection of house-roasted, tender chicken flattered by high-grade leaves and fixins, you won't regret not ordering a greasy pizza.

Served in a properly chilled bowl and with a doorstop wedge of crusty housemade multigrain bread perked up by salt and rosemary, the different-pleasure-in-every-bite Beechwold deftly balances top-notch ingredients. A spring mix bolstered by radicchio and Napa cabbage serves as the canvas for juicy pulled chicken whose rotisserie-cooked accents find surprising rhymes in deeply roasted almonds. Creamy goat cheese daubs and avocado chunks bounce off sweet corn, tomatoes, pleasantly chewy dates and crunchy homemade croutons. Tying the whole shebang together is a delightful, basil-inflected champagne vinaigrette whose zippy acidity is perfectly countered by an open but restrained sweetness.


Portia's Cafe: Green on the Green ($10), with "Notuna" ($2 supplement)

The healthiest restaurant in town is a good place to detox after, say, "researching" a long story about the fervent rise of fried chicken in Columbus. Don't confuse that sentiment with saying that eating at Portia's is like taking your medicine. That's because the (take a long breath) vegan/organic/local-leaning/raw-leaning/GMO-and-gluten-free (whew!) cuisine from this cute and cheery outpost is as deeply flavorful as it is creative.

The Green on the Green is a two-fer salad that bridges new school veganism with old-school hippie food. It's one part Portia's Deep Green: a killer, modern-style kale salad with tenderized massaged kale and bruised onions tossed in a curry-scented vibrant dressing detonated by (soy sauce-like) liquid amino acids. Part two is Portia's House Salad. Seemingly transported from Berkeley in the 1960s, it's a nutrient-and-fiber-bomb of good greens, red cabbage, sunflower seeds, walnuts, sprouts, carrots, onions and in-season veggies. To add yin to the Deep Green's tangy curry yang, order the House Salad with Portia's sweet-edged and sour creamy homemade cashew dressing. And help unify the whole thing by tacking-on some "Notuna," an intriguing dollop of nutty, bright-with-lemon, pickly and crunchy-with-celery walnut pate.

Surf or Turf

Erawan: Yum Seafood ($14) or Num Tok (Thai Beef Salad, $11)

I'm crazy for Thai salads. I'm especially nutso for those protein-loaded, full-meal deals. Not only do they excite your mouth and rattle your brain with their wild array of propulsive flavors, but they're also filling and damn healthy. How many dinners can you say that about? Anyway, one of the best places to score a great Thai salad is cute, comfy, tidy and friendly Erawan, i.e. one of the best Thai restaurants in town.

If you love non-fried fish dishes, it's hard to beat Erawan's refreshing Yum Seafood. Plus, it lives up to its name - yeah, it's yummy, but "yum" is actually Thai for "spicy and sour salad."

What you get is a fish-nado of gently steamed, warm and tender ocean critters - huge mussels, fresh-tasting shrimp, uncommonly supple cuttlefish - awash in a tongue-tingling, delightfully pool-forming dressing vigorous with citrus, lemongrass, chili, ginger, DIY fennel-y Thai basil, plus whiffs of fish sauce - all put into focus by a mild, background sweetness.

The salad vegetables are a fragrant mélange of snipped cilantro tubes and onions. Undergirding this is a few dressing-catching leaves of good lettuce.

If beef's more you thing, Erawan's Num Tok gives grilled steak-y strips a very similar treatment ("num tok" means "waterfall," and likely refers to meat juices leaking onto a charcoal grill). Erawan's beef version is spicier, and if a bit less tender than the seafood, it also has a neat textural element from being tossed with crackly ground, toasted rice.

Pro-tip: Both of these salads find their perfect, juice-transporting side dish partner in Thai-style sticky rice.

Northstar Cafe

Three locations

Harvest Pizzeria

Two locations

Portia's Cafe

4428 Indianola Ave., Clintonville


Erawan Thai Restaurant

3589 Refugee Rd., East Side


Alana's Food and Wine

2333 N. High St., Campus


Westies Gastropub

940 S. Front St., Brewery District