Garden Sensations Salads

By: Wendy’s

I Paid: $4.99 for all but the Southwest Taco Salad ($4.69; prices may vary by region)

Taste: 3stars

Marketing: 4stars

It’s high summer, and the idea of cold meets hot is intensely appealing. The combination of a hot, sliced chicken breast served on a cool, refreshing salad isn’t as enticing as just scooping ice cream directly from the cardboard carton into the mouth, but it still sounds decent.

When offered by Wendy’s in the form of its Garden Sensations Salads, this tempting prospect suddenly seems dicier. Wendy’s isn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel franchise, but it has spawned at least as many hits as misses over the years. I’ll dispense with another new Wendy’s item in this throwaway sentence: The “hand-spun” Frosty Shake ($2.39) that I ordered came out nearly as liquid as chocolate milk and tasted vaguely of chemicals.

But as it turns out, the Mandarin Chicken Salad offers a surprisingly felicitous blend of crispy noodles, flavorful mandarin orange slices, thinly sliced almonds, and warm pieces of chicken topped with an overly-sweet-but-not-hideous Oriental Sesame dressing. If compelled to eat at a highway off-ramp that lacks a Taco Bell, this is my new go-to dish.

The Southwest Taco Salad is basically chili dumped on top of lettuce, but the addition of sour cream and the ambitiously named Ancho Chipotle Ranch sauce make the experience pleasurable, if not a culinary revelation. Competent, borderline-fiery spicing (particularly in the chili) and fresher, crisper vegetables would bring this meal up from a C-minus to a B-minus, but it’s still not a disaster. The Chicken BLT Salad with “homestyle” (read: fried) chicken has the least going on of any of the three salads sampled, but the chicken strips were at least fairly delicious in a primal, om nom nom sort of way.

Calories in these things range from 780 (the Chicken BLT) to 490 (the Chicken Caesar), so they aren’t exactly light eating.

Breakfast Toaster Sandwiches

By: Sonic

I Paid: $2.39 (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 4stars

Marketing: 3stars

The Sonic fast-food chain is sweeping the nation with a youth-friendly ad barrage; a slick, brightly colored design scheme; and a mind-blowingly vast selection of blended sugar syrups and ice cream treats. Aiming for the breakfast market, the chain has now introduced a low-expectations/high-comfort entrée known as the Breakfast Toaster Sandwich.

The stripped-down simplicity of the Sonic Breakfast Toaster is the key to its power: no gimmicks, no syrup-soaked pancake substitutes, no fancy-schmancy English muffins. The Breakfast Toaster is two thick, soft slices of toast; good old American cheese; a silken square of scrambled eggs; and a three-course menu of kosher- and vegetarian-proof additional protein choices—sausage, ham, or bacon. The result is a kind of warm, comforting breakfast taste that hearkens back, perhaps, to a hung-over morning in college when you slapped together the meager provisions within your dorm fridge, shoved the resulting stack of food into the toaster, and—lo and behold—accidentally achieved perfection.

The bacon is no great shakes. It’s crunchy, sure; salty, sure; but not particularly thick or pork-flavored. This does little to undermine the overall experience of the sandwich, however. The bread leads, the bread dominates, and the bread (fortunately for the folks at Sonic) is thoroughly toasted, fluffy, and yielding without being insubstantial. Sonic, in a highly caloric and classically fast-food fashion, has done the Great American Road Breakfast a real service.

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