Long Live the Wedge Salad, America's Silliest Salad
The wedge is a silly salad. It's built upon the back of the least flavorful and least nutrient-dense lettuce available and blanketed in some of the fattiest ingredients around. This makes it simultaneously the least nutritious and most unhealthy salad on most menus it graces. But I love it.
I love the crunch of the cold, crisp iceberg lettuce and the way the creamy and tangy dressing slowly seeps into all the layers of the leaves. I love the sharp funk of the crumbled blue cheese, the pop of acidity of the tomatoes and the way the smokiness of the bacon wraps around each bite. And I love how it looks: the way the towering wedge of iceberg lettuce stands proudly on the plate, with steep, imposing sides, like it was chiseled from a block of stone.
You know who else loves wedge salads? Steakhouses. I glanced at the menus of the 32 most popular steakhouses in Chicago (according to Google and Yelp), and they all had a wedge salad.
Well, every single steakhouse except one: Michael Jordan's Steak House (505 N. Michigan Ave.) on the Magnificent Mile. I called up the restaurant's chef, Craig Couper, to see what he had to say about this scandal.
Turns out, Michael Jordan's Steak House usually does serve a wedge salad, but I just happened to catch the restaurant when the dish had been rotated off the menu. "We change the menu often, and this cycle I wanted to do a chopped salad," says Couper. "Because they have many of the same ingredients, I didn't see the need to have two salads with the same flavors." (If you're really missing the chef's version, the Michael Jordan restaurant in suburban Oak Brook still has a wedge salad on the menu.)
Still, Couper had nothing but nice things to say about the wedge. "It's a timeless thing," says Couper. "When all the elements are executed right, it's awesome." For Couper, the iceberg lettuce must be cold and "heavy for its weight." And while the lettuce doesn't cost much, all the other components probably will. "The surrounding ingredients of a wedge salad are very expensive," says Couper. "We typically use two types of blue cheese that are not inexpensive. Plus, we use hand-cut Nueske's bacon that we fry to order, and that's not cheap.”
You can find picture-perfect versions of the wedge at Kinzie Chophouse (400 N. Wells St.) and Gibsons Steakhouse (1028 N. Rush St.). Both serve a soaring wedge of iceberg lettuce covered in a creamy dressing, chopped bacon, tomatoes and crumbled blue cheese. They are not the most exciting versions I encountered on my quest for Chicago’s best, but there is something deeply satisfying when basic wedge salad is flawlessly done.
But most of the steakhouses I visited attempted to stand out from the crowd by adding a few twists. Chicago Cut Steakhouse (300 N. LaSalle Drive) uses baby iceberg lettuce and adds mildly pungent sliced red onions. RPM Steak (66 W. Kinzie St.) tosses in briny olives and creamy cubed avocado. Prime & Provisions (222 N. LaSalle St.) mixes in cubed cucumber and serves the bacon in huge, golf ball-size pieces. Though all were slightly different, and utterly delectable, each wedge still felt familiar and approachable.
Adding an unexpected flourish to a classic dish without screwing up its essential nature is hard, says Danny Grant, executive chef at Maple & Ash (8 W. Maple St.). "When we were developing the opening menu for Maple & Ash, we knew we wanted to have a wedge salad. I thought it would be easy and take a day or two to develop. Months later, I was still working on it."
Grant and his team decided to refocus on the basics. "We eventually started with the classic foundation, and then asked ourselves, 'How can we enhance it, and make it better?'" That meant curing and smoking the bacon, and then crisping it up with maple syrup and black pepper.
Still, it didn't all come together until his team was testing another item on the menu. "We were tasting onion rings one day," says Grant, "and I said, 'Why not put that on the wedge salad?' It takes the whole salad over the top." Indeed, the onion ring adds another satisfyingly crunchy element, along with a mellow sweetness.
You know who hates wedge salads? Nutritionists.
Bethany Doerfler, a clinical research specialist at the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Medicine, says that iceberg lettuce is "the least nutritious of all the lettuces available," though she was quick to add that it isn't completely devoid of good attributes. "It has fiber and a high water content," says Doerfler. "That can help replicate the feeling of fullness."
The problem isn't the iceberg lettuce, but what goes on top, says Doerfler: "Americans are very good at putting cheese and creamy sauces on things." This habit means that a wedge salad can often contain more calories than you probably assume. "Many of these salads, once restaurants add cheese and creamy dressings, can be over 1,000 calories," says Doerfler. "Arguably, there are more calories and fat in a wedge salad than in a Big Mac."
Think about that: Most people would gawk in horror if you scarfed down an entire Big Mac before digging into a hulking slab of well-marbled beef, yet for some reason it makes sense to start a meal at a steakhouse with a wedge salad.
Yet, when I visited steakhouses and tried only eating a wedge salad, I left deeply unsatisfied. Even though the salad packs in the calories, the wedge makes no sense unless it's followed by something else, preferably steak. Maybe we Americans have been conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to crave an obscene portion of beef following a wedge salad. Or maybe the two really do go together.
Of all the steakhouses serving a wedge salad, none surprised me more than GT Prime (707 N. Wells St.), which claims to offer a "modern twist" on a traditional steakhouse. "We didn't have one for a year and a half," admits executive chef and partner Giuseppe Tentori. "We added it not because of a request, but because I wanted to add some salads to the menu."
Tentori did not grow up eating wedge salads in Italy. In fact, he first tried the salad only after moving to Chicago 25 years ago. It didn't take him long to get the appeal. "I took one bite and thought, 'Wow, that's amazing!'" says Tentori. "The iceberg lettuce was extra crunchy, and then there was this creamy, cool dressing."
Tentori isn't big on changing the core characteristics of the salad, though he does believe it should look dramatic. Instead of offering a quarter wedge of lettuce, Tentori uses two fat slices of iceberg lettuce that are dressed simply and then stacked on top of each other. No other wedge salad in town looks anything like it, yet it still follows the basic wedge formula of a creamy dressing, blue cheese crumbles, tomatoes and bacon. "You're in a comfortable zone when you order a wedge salad," says Tentori. "It's not a fine dining dish. It's meant to be eaten at a steakhouse."
This I can confirm. A salad this ridiculous only makes sense inside the confines of a restaurant purposely designed for gluttony. Bring it out into the daylight, and the wedge looks absurd. Perhaps you shouldn't indulge that often, but when you want one, the wedge will almost certainly be waiting for you at your closest steakhouse.