1. McDonald's Asian Salad
If nothing else, Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me deserve credit for shaming McDonald's into offering some healthy alternatives for picky eaters stuck on long family road trips, desperate to find any restaurant with a play area. Following the disastrous late-'90s "McSalad Shaker" experiment—which the company survived without enduring any lawsuits from people with cold vinaigrette stains on their laps—McDonald's shifted to two "Approved by Bob Greene, Oprah's personal trainer" bowled salads. Both the Chicken Caesar and the Bacon Ranch are pretty good, and they come with a choice of grilled or fried chicken breast—the latter for those who want to eat quasi-healthy while satisfying the part of their nerve center that smells french fries and requires an immediate grease-and-salt fix. But McDonald's best salad is its latest, the Asian Salad, which comes with snow peas, toasted almonds, orange slices, ginger dressing, and an orange-glazed chicken breast. Yes, it's a rip-off of Wendy's Mandarin Chicken Salad. It's also 10 times better, with crispier veggies and hotter, tenderer meat. And that ginger dressing is Newman's Own—because who knows Asian cuisine better than Cool Hand Luke?
2. Burger King Tendercrisp Garden Salad
Burger King's great salad innovation is a little pouch that keeps the grilled or fried chicken breast from spoiling the romaine lettuce with its wilt-inducing heat. That pouch also contains a buttload of chicken, which means the paltry collection of greens, cukes, tomatoes, and carrots gets a little overwhelmed. (Throw in two pieces of bread, and you've got yourself a DIY chicken-sandwich kit.) In spite of the portion disparity—and the fact that the baby carrots and grape tomatoes are just lazily tossed on, unsliced—this salad is very tasty, especially with honey-mustard dressing and a side of whatever nearby children don't finish from their BK Kids meal. Suggestion: Distract them with their free Star Wars toy while you swipe some fries.
3. Back Yard Burgers Blackened Chicken Salad
Speaking of portion control, Back Yard Burgers has apparently so perfected the art of the faux-grilled hamburger and chicken breast that they see no reason to provide much accompaniment. Sandwich combos throw in a meager fistful of fries, and even the sandwiches themselves are barely dressed, with a thin slice of lettuce, a tomato or two, and stringy red onion. That's why the best deal in the place is the Blackened Chicken Salad, which plops an impressively peppery chicken breast on a dense bowl of lettuce, teeming with shredded veg. Like all BYB salads, this one theoretically comes with a lemon wedge, though you may need to fish your own out of the container next to the iced-tea dispenser. Stingy bastards.
4. Sonic Santa Fe Grilled Chicken Salad
The best thing about Sonic salads? They all come with an onion ring right on top of the bowl, all greasy and sweet-battered, as though dropped into the salad mix by accident. The second-best thing? The salads are fresh and delicious, especially the Santa Fe, which adds a genuinely spicy black-bean-and-corn relish and a tender grilled chicken breast, drenched in liquid smoke and so hot that it usually melts all the cheese. The worst thing about Sonic salads? The dressing packets are at room temperature, which may be safe, but just feels wrong.
5. Chick-Fil-A Southwest Chargrilled Salad
Most fast-food salads are better when they're spicier, and there's really none as spicy as Chik-Fil-A's version of the Southwest salad, which comes with an even peppier bean-corn relish (spiked with jalapeños) and a dressing called, simply, "Spicy." Chik-Fil-A even throws in some fairly zingy tortilla strips. It's a good thing the restaurant has a chain-wide policy that keeps it closed on Sunday. God surely wouldn't approve of a salad so flavorful being consumed on His day.
6. Hardee's Southwest Chicken Salad
After reinventing itself as a made-to-order burger-only chain a few years back, Hardee's (a.k.a. Carl's Jr. in some regions) has gradually been adding items, including a pretty hellish attempt at a taco salad with spicy ground beef. (Tip for fast-food restaurant-goers: If the meat in a salad doesn't appear in any other dish on the menu, steer clear.) Far better is the Southwest Chicken Salad, made with fried chicken, generous amounts of cheddar cheese, a few leaves of lettuce, and a dressing that tastes like what Outback serves with its Bloomin' Onion. In other words, we've left healthy eating far behind here. It also comes served in a "freshly made" flour tortilla shell, and they aren't kidding about the freshness. It comes hot out of the fryer, and reduces any greenery that gets near it to a pasty condiment. But man, is it ever yummy. Just don't kiss anybody when you're done.
7. Wendy's Southwest Taco Salad
When is a salad not a salad? When it comes with a bowl of chili, a bag of corn chips, a bowl of salsa, and a container of sour cream. Mixed together, the Southwest Taco Salad at Wendy's is pretty disgusting, but order it from the drive-thru—where all the ingredients are packed separately—and you've got the equivalent of a soup-and-salad combo. And the soup role is filled by the best item on any Wendy's menu: the lean, pleasantly spicy chili. Skip the sour cream and go easy on the corn chips, and you've probably got a meal that's lighter than any other salad on this list, with the following exception…
8. Arby's Martha's Vineyard Salad
Consider this a dessert salad: cold chicken chunks, dried cranberries, apple slices, toasted almonds, and raspberry vinaigrette on a bed of greens. It isn't for everyone, but compared to the majority of the dry-fried-chicken-and-week-old-bagged-greens salads that most fast-food restaurants offer, at least this one is original. What has it to do with Martha's Vineyard? Who knows? Maybe Bill Clinton loves cranberries.