Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

12 Ways to Mix Up Salads Trend-forward strategies to freshen up the salad category

Tapping into an ever-popular flavor system, the Buffalo Cauliflower Salad at Shredded in Boston incorporates twice-baked cauliflower in a tangy-hot Buffalo sauce, surrounded by tossed greens and a carrot-tomato vinaigrette.
PHOTO CREDIT: Reagan Byrne

Salads are a menu mainstay, but that stalwart positioning sometimes blocks innovation. Chefs are responding to the driving demand for trend-forward menu items by spinning salads that showcase creativity in both assembly and flavor combination. One huge source of inspiration for modern salad development is the bowls category, which sees a dizzying amount of impressive textural play and flavor experimentation. Today’s diners have widely accepted bowls, giving the nod to chefs that salads are fair game. Here are 12 inroads into signature salads, all offering opportunity to create a memorable, come-back-again flavor experience.

1 Flavor-System Play

We love tracking the creative play behind trending flavor systems, where chefs maximize their proven success by presenting them in unexpected forms: a pho taco, for instance, or a tikka masala poutine. Salads are a perfect platform for modern flavor systems, taking the quintessential elements and tossing them into something entirely new.

  • Buffalo Cauliflower Salad: Twice-baked cauliflower tossed in Buffalo hot sauce, mesclun mix, romaine, shredded carrots, cucumber, roasted tomato, crumbled blue cheese with carrot-tomato vinaigrette
    —Shredded, Boston
  • Saint Lou’s Bibimbap Salad: Kale, pickled apples, gochujang, farro, grilled chicken
    —Saint Lou’s Assembly, Chicago
  • Hot Chicken Spinach Salad: A classic spinach salad with hot chicken tenders, blue cheese crumbles, apples, red onion and warm bacon-mustard dressing
    —Party Fowl, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

2 Fruit First

Presenting fruit in unexpected ways not only lends a refreshing take to a salad build, it adds a premium positioning that’s hard to beat. Perhaps it’s a dollop of fig preserves or a spear of grilled pineapple—a fruit-forward accent signals valuable culinary craftsmanship.

  • Farmhouse Chopped: A blend of avocado, potatoes, cucumbers and grapefruit
    —The Sycamore Kitchen, Los Angeles
  • Quinoa-Wheatberry Salad with smoked chicken, puffed mango, manchego chicharrón
    —Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe, Dallas

3 Dollops & Swipes

This category represents the greatest expression of a modern salad build, incorporating an unexpected textural element on the plate through the addition of an on-trend flavored hummus or other plant-based purée. Not to be confused with a drizzle, these dollops, swipes and spreads add a base for the salad, where the diner happily dips into a smoked eggplant purée or garlicky chimichurri, for instance, every other forkful or so.

  • Hummus Tahina Salad: Chopped romaine, shredded kale, herb falafel, local feta, tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, za’atar bread crumbs, housemade hummus, cucumber-tahini yogurt dressing
    —Sweetgreen, based in Culver City, Calif.
  • Market Carrots Salad: Locally sourced carrots incorporate roasted, pickled and raw carrot ribbons over artful swipes of carrot purée and carrot-top pesto
    —Jane Q at The Everly Hotel, Los Angeles
K. Teig / Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants Group

The vibrant Market Carrots Salad at Jane Q in Los Angeles showcases modern textural contrast with roasted, pickled and raw carrot ribbons over swipes of carrot purée and carrot-top pesto.

4 Dressings With a Kick

There’s no abatement in the quest for heat by today’s dining consumers. They love it, they crave it, and they seek it out. Spicing up salad dressing is a great opportunity: It satisfies that love of heat while also playing into the modern trend of nuanced, complex spiciness, which has undertones of savory or sweet—an intuitive play for a salad dressing.

  • Palm Beach: Avocado, grape tomatoes, English cucumbers, hearts of palm, romaine, choice of wild shrimp or grilled chicken, with hot honey vinaigrette
    —Chopt, based in New York
  • Puesto’s Caesar Salad: Romaine hearts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, chicharrón croutons and a Serrano Caesar dressing
    —Puesto, based in San Diego

5 Next-level Texture

Texture is the name of the game today, with chefs unleashing its high-impact potential in creative flourishes that delight and inspire. From crispy ham crumbles and charred cauliflower bits to cornbread croutons and frizzled onions, textural elements on a salad are the modern equivalent of Emeril Lagasse’s famous “Bam!”—the promise of excitement.

  • Tokyo Supergreens: Supergreens blend, grilled chicken, carrot-edamame slaw, avocado, roasted broccoli, toasted almonds, furikake shake, miso-ginger vinaigrette
    —Just Salad, based in New York
  • Crisp Organic Farm Egg Salad: Parmesan-crusted farm egg, baby tomatoes, red onion, local greens and bacon
    —The Buffalo Club, Santa Monica, Calif.
  • Chicken Tempura Salad: Spiced, shredded chicken breast with carrots, celery, scallions, Mandarin oranges and tempura crunch on a blend of iceberg lettuce, napa and red cabbage with a soy-ginger vinaigrette
    —Prawn, Los Angeles
Just Salad

This Tokyo Supergreens Salad at Just Salad, based in New York, gets textural differentiation with roasted broccoli, smooth avocado and toasted almonds.

6 Global Mash-up Dressings

With so many pantries to explore, it’s no wonder that the global mash-up phenomenon is touching all parts of the menu. It makes sense for salads to get in on the game, maybe infusing mango chutney into a vinaigrette, or adding gochujang to a barbecue-ranch dressing.

  • Sumac Fatoush: Bread salad with fresh basil, mint, baby kale, fennel, Persian cucumber, parsley, watermelon radish and sumac pita, tossed in a honey-lemon-sumac vinaigrette
    —Dez, New York
  • Citrus Salad with Moroccan carrot vinaigrette, Tokyo turnip, smoked hazelnut and fennel pollen
    —The Exchange, Los Angeles

7 Cheese on Top

Cubed, crumbled or shredded cheeses have always found a happy home on salads. Today, chefs are upping the intrigue factor, playing off of cheese’s wondrous ability to be melted, battered, dolloped or fried. And chefs are also tapping into both regionality and exoticism, picking cheeses that either express local character or present diners with an undiscovered or unexpected nugget of glorious cheese.

  • Fried Carrot Salad: Fried carrots, burrata cheese, baby kale and avocado vinaigrette
    —101 Coffee Shop, Los Angeles
  • Q Salad: Curly green kale, Florida peaches, smoked chicken, pickled red onions, aged white cheddar, hot honey vinaigrette
    —Swine & Sons, Winter Park, Fla.

8 Fried Things

Nothing cradles an indulgent item—such as fried chicken or crispy battered onions—like a bed of leafy greens. Now, as with all elements of menu-building, chefs are making mindful moves when it comes to what fried element makes it onto their salads. It has to enthrall—and it has to be worth the added calories that fried foods generally carry.

  • Santa Fe Ranch Chicken: Fried or grilled chicken over mixed greens with corn, avocado, black beans, cheddar and pepper Jack cheeses, roasted jalapeño ranch, topped with crispy Anaheim peppers and pico de gallo
    —Rock Bottom Restaurants, based in Broomfield, Colo.
  • Tender Lettuces with fried oysters, fermented carrots and buttermilk dressing
    —Reynard, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Tempura Fried Halibut Cheek Salad with arugula, Fuji apples and grain-mustard aïoli
    —Water Grill, based in Los Angeles

Fried oysters nestle among tender greens in this nicely balanced salad at Reynard in Brooklyn, N.Y. Fermented carrots lend a surprising flavor punch.

9 Creative Pickles

The salad category has watched with envy as tacos, bowls and sandwiches have demonstrated an affinity for pickled garnishes. Now, chefs are not only adding a bright, acidic pickled something or other to salads, they’re upping the ante. They’re showcasing just how creative salad builds can be, from finishes of pickled fish, cabbage or seasonal produce, like strawberries, mango and watermelon rinds.

  • Pear & Pickled Grape Salad with Calvados-blanched pears, citrus-infused mascarpone, candied walnuts, grilled Louisiana white shrimp and local honey vinaigrette
    —SoBou, New Orleans
  • Chopped Salad: Local chicken, six-minute egg, red onion, pickled celery, heirloom cherry tomatoes, bacon, smoky blue cheese, bread crumbles and buttermilk dill dressing
    —Flying Fig, Cleveland

The pickled grapes in this salad at SoBou in New Orleans awaken the palate with their acidic-sweet brightness. Blanched pears serve as a milder complement.

10 Modern Protein Stars

Grilled chicken executed well is a beautiful thing over an entrée salad, but there’s room for both flavor-forward techniques and adventurous proteins on salads today. At Houston-based salad concept Salata, guests can choose from 11 proteins, including falafel and Asian BBQ Chicken.

  • Grilled Albacore Salad: Fresh albacore with confit leeks, frisée, crispy capers and Calabrese vinaigrette
    —Little Dom’s, Los Angeles
  • Tuna Poke Wedge: Ahi tuna, cucumber, green onion and red onion served over iceberg lettuce, topped with peanuts, fried rice noodles and ginger-sesame dressing
    —Datz, Tampa, Fla.
Datz Restaurant Group

Poke is making its move into salads, like in this Tuna Poke Wedge at Datz in Tampa, Fla. Iceberg lettuce, peanuts, and fried rice noodles add a contrasting range of crunch.

11 New Grain Explorations

Quinoa has proven the potential power-pairing of greens and grains, and chefs are looking to other varieties like farro, bulgur wheat and puffed rice to add a unique boost. Grains certainly enhance satiety, and can be manipulated in a variety of ways, with crispy, charred or smoky tones.

  • Thai Chopped Salad: Asparagus, napa and savoy cabbages, puffed brown rice, pickled Fresnos, plum-ginger dressing
    —Beatrix, Chicago
  • (In a Galaxy) Farro Away Salad: Mung beans, golden raisins, leaf kale, farro, parsley, almonds and Champagne vinaigrette
    —Beelman’s, Los Angeles

Beelman’s in Los Angeles makes the most of healthful ingredients in this hearty salad of mung beans, golden raisins, leaf kale, farro, parsley, almonds and Champagne vinaigrette.

12 Pulses/Beans

With terms like “plant-forward” and “plant-based” becoming part of our collective culinary vernacular, it makes sense that pulses are finding their way into salad builds. Not only do they up the wholesome quotient significantly, they help with satiety and feel-good factor—all while answering a growing consumer demand for plant-based proteins.

  • Mizuna Salad: Supergreen mizuna, tangerines, fennel, lentils and hazelnuts, in a citrus vinaigrette
    —Checker Hall, Los Angeles
  • Cucumber Salad with petite greens, cannellini beans, pine nuts, mint, za’atar
    —Rustica, Kalamazoo, Mich.


From the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of Flavor & the Menu magazine. Read the full issue online or check if you qualify for a free print subscription.




About The Author


Katie Ayoub serves as managing editor of Flavor & The Menu and content strategist for the Flavor Experience, an annual conference geared toward chain operators. She is president of Katie Ayoub & Associates, serving up menu trends expertise, content creation and food & beverage consultancy. Based in Chicago, Katie has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 20 years and part of the Flavor team since 2006. [email protected]