2015-08-05

Salad Review: Trader Joe's Chicken Caesar

I wouldn't normally "review" a caesar salad on my blog, but in this case, we're talking about a salad that gets rave reviews. In fact, as I was buying my salad yesterday, the cashier who rung me up started telling me about how he ate the salad for lunch and that it was delicious. He said he was sure I would enjoy it.

So, this is a salad that is popular among economics bloggers and Trader Joe's employees alike. Clearly, this is something worth spending my time writing about.

I'll review this salad in terms of its individual components, and then provide a bottom-line recommendation at the end.

Lettuce

The lettuce was the salad's strongest suit, in my opinion. Most grocery store caesar salads consist of basically a big, chopped-up hunk of romaine lettuce, with special emphasis placed on the romaine hearts - the sweetest, juiciest part of the head. That's understandable, but I'm the kind of person who enjoys the taste of the mature romaine leaves. The flavor is a little more bitter, but a lot more complex, and it just suits me better.

Luckily for me, Trader Joe's gives equal billing to hearts and tips, which means that the salad has more tips than the average caesar salad.

The lettuce was also relatively fresh, although there were a few questionable leaves, but that isn't uncommon for grocery store salads.

Chicken

The chicken pieces themselves were pretty tasty, but there were only two pieces in there. So while the quality was relatively high, the quantity was much lower than, say, a comparable caesar salad purchased from Walmart.

For some, this might not actually be a detractor. Some people like to keep their portions relatively small. In fact, I remember a good friend of mine talking about sandwiches at a restaurant. When I asked her how big the sandwiches were, she "assured' me, "Not too big!" This made me laugh because she thought I was worried that I wouldn't be able to eat the whole thing, when in fact my concern was whether the sandwich was large enough to sate me (which is usually not the case).

So if you like your salads small, the chicken in Trader Joe's chicken caesar salad will deliver as promised. But if you're hungry, by the time you finish your salad, you'll still be hungry.

Dressing, Croutons, Etc.

The salad was weakest on this level. The dressing was insufficiently garlicky, the cheese was sparse and not particularly fresh, and the croutons were flavorless. 

I can overlook the caesar dressing itself. It's a difficult salad dressing to get right, especially considering that classic caesar dressing involves tastes that tend to be a little too much for the American palette (anchovies - not bacon - are required for a truly authentic caesar, and we all know how anchovies are viewed by most people). Overall, I found the dressing to be quite similar to the caesar dressing you'll find at Einstein Bros., which is not great, but... not terrible.

However, I can't overlook the cheese. What was provided was a tiny packet of Parmesan dust. It's not as if Trader Joe's can't afford to put some real cheese in the box. The dust was just insulting.

Cost

At about $4 for perhaps a cup and a half of lettuce and two small chicken strips, this is one of the more expensive ready-made grocery store salads on the market. A similarly priced salad at Walmart, for example, tastes no worse and greatly surpasses the Trader Joe's salad on quantity. Also, Walmart's salads come with a plastic fork. Trader Joe's leaves the eating utensils up to you.

That said, I knew I'd be spending extra money when I arrived at Trader Joe's in the first place. Nobody goes there to save money.

The Bottom Line

While the salad didn't taste all that bad, for $4 it just wasn't a very good value. I've already mentioned Walmart's caesar salads several times, because that is the baseline comparator in my case. Trader Joe's is nearby, and Walmart is the next-nearest grocery store. Consequently, I find myself purchasing a salad and a sandwich from Walmart with some regularity, and I have to say, Walmart has Trader Joe's beat, hands-down.

But even if we set aside my personal favorite grocery store salad and compare Trader Joe's salad to others "in general," I still feel it doesn't offer a good enough value proposition to be an attractive lunch option. You can either get more salad for the same money elsewhere, or a better-tasting salad for a comparable amount of money.

In any case, my recommendation is: if you're looking for a great caesar salad, do not go to Trader Joe's.