Grazing the salad bars at Whole Foods and Jason’s

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, my father came home one day and announced, “Kids, we’re going to Chicago this weekend, and we’re going to a new kind of restaurant. It has the most amazing salads on a giant buffet, and you can walk right up and take whatever you want.”

I don’t think the term “salad bar” had even been invented in those days, back in the dawn of the Baby Boom, but as soon as Dad told me that the deal included as many cucumbers and as much sour cream as I wanted to eat, I was so there. I might not have been crazy for salads — I was a kid, after all — but my mom loathed sour cream and banned it from our house, so this was my entrée into a forbidden pleasure. Looking back on it, I must have been one tame kid.

Still, I got my cucumbers and sour cream, and lettuce and croutons and carrots and blue cheese and Thousand Island dressing and maybe some shrimp, and I was converted, along with just about everybody else. Salad bars were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew strong, and soon the land was filled with them. And as surely as night follows day, we got bored with them, and before you knew it, salad bars were mostly relegated to places like Golden Corral and Ponderosa, and life went on.

These days, you’ll rarely see me mention a salad bar in a review, even if I happen to visit an eatery that has one. Salad bar? Who cares! Make something interesting, please, and make it just for me.

But let’s not consign salad bars entirely to the dustbin of history. “Would you like to visit the salad bar before you enjoy your steak?” might sound oh-so ’70s now, but sometimes a person wants a delicious, healthy salad. When this craving strikes, I’m inclined to head for Whole Foods or Jason’s Deli, where expansive, carefully tended salad bars offer no mere starter, but an entire meal.

These spreads are similar, but different, and yes, they are both corporate chains, not the locals I generally favor. (Hit up Rainbow Blossom if you need to support a Louisville indie. Their salad bar is organic and delicious, albeit a bit more limited.)

Bargain seekers might contemplate the different pricing mechanism at each establishment: At Jason’s, the salad bar provides all you can eat for a flat $7.59. Once you’ve paid the admission, you’re welcome to pile your plastic plate as high as you wish, and go back for another plate if you want more. At Whole Foods, you’ll load your compostable cardboard box with all the goodies you like, and have it weighed at checkout, paying $7.99 per pound. So, if you’re really hungry, or love a bargain, Jason’s economic model may work for you. Whereas Whole Foods’ system rewards the thrifty.

Jason’s bar operates as an adjunct to a larger restaurant, with an expansive and quite decent menu of traditional deli foods. Whole Foods’ bar (and the adjacent lunch bar, with hot dishes) operates within the “natural and organic” grocery store.

Both establishments offer a wide variety of options — I counted about 49 deep, round cans of goodies, plus lettuces and a variety of nuts, seeds and crackers at Jason’s; Whole Foods’ spread included lettuce, crunchies and maybe 60 flat pans, plus a spread of toppings and dressings. Both salad bars were kept fresh, full and clean.

What really puts Whole Foods over the top for me, though, is culinary creativity. Where Jason’s is essentially a traditional salad bar writ large, Whole Foods’ chefs bring innovative, interesting salad creations to the table that turn a salad into a meal.

You’ll find everything from fresh (cooked) yellowfin tuna or a seductive chicken salad to vegan green lentils with bell peppers; quinoa and black beans with onions and peppers; mozzarella salad; something called “superfood salad” that scares me — it might make me run into a phone booth, if I could find one, and change into my Superman suit. Couscous, asparagus, avocado, pasta salads? You’ll find ’em here. Say “tofu” and you’ll make most people laugh, but try a couple of triangles of smoky, silken grilled sesame tofu here and you might go back for more.

How healthy is this stuff? To be honest, it depends on what you eat. Some, not all, items are organic, and most are “natural,” a term that carries no legal weight. If you count calories, four little tablespoons of cheddar cheese, three ounces of turkey or a paltry three tablespoons of tuna salad rack up 110 calories each, about the same as 11 cups of lettuce or seven cups of shredded cucumber. But pour on two little tablespoons of blue cheese dressing (155 calories), and you lose the advantage.

But hold this thought: Go for a Big Mac and large fries, and you’ll rack up 1,130 calories in a sitting.

Salad, anyone?

•Whole Foods Market
4944 Shelbyville Road • 899-5545
Salad bar rating: 92

•Jason’s Deli
Shelbyville Road Plaza
4600 Shelbyville Road • 896-0150
Salad bar rating: 88