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In our reviews of chain restaurants I have been looking forward to Souplantation (the chain also runs sister restaurants under the name Sweet Tomatoes). The concept is fabulous and there are similar restaurant chains including Lettuce Souprise You. They all have a huge salad bar that is stocked with fresh veggies, as well as prepared salads that are accompanied by offerings of soup, muffins and baked potatoes. As is the custom here at Dr. Gourmet I did a lot of research prior to the visit.
As with all chain restaurants we've encountered, there's a lot of added salt. More than you might think from a chain that claims to make fresh food "never... from a mix, box, carton or can." Likewise, there are more calories in their healthy salads, so it's a good idea to do your research before going. If you forget, they do have brochures prominently displayed that contain complete nutrition info (here's a printable version). It's a good idea to keep this on hand because the menu does change, with only a few of their wide variety of prepared salads and soups available each day.
The Spicy Cajun Shells, a pasta salad, weren't all that spicy. While this is to be expected from a chain that wants to appeal to a mass audience, there's just not much flavor at all. It's nothing special and at 350 calories for 1/2 cup simply not worth putting on your plate. The Ragin' Cajun with Chicken was similar, with a tempting title but a disappointing flavor. There is more of the Creole seasoning in this one, but the spice just tasted raw, with no other flavors to soften it. The Tuna Tarragon was better, with a nice creamy, herbaceous flavor. This would be a good picnic salad if it were not for the whopping amount of sodium (450 mg in a half cup). The shame is that the salad tasted too salty and would be fantastic with about 1/3 of the added salt.
There are some winners here. The Won Ton Chicken Happiness salad is delicious, with a great creamy Asian flavor, and at 170 calories and only 290 mg of sodium in a cup, a real winner. Likewise, the Pineapple Coconut Slaw was good with a fresh sweet and sour flavor. The bitterness of the cabbage is really complemented by the pineapple and it is only 150 calories for a half cup (and 190 mg of sodium). Similarly, the Joan's Broccoli Madness had a nice balance of crisp, fresh tasting broccoli, creamy dressing and fresh bacon bits (1/2 cup 180 calories and 290 mg sodium).
The dressings that didn't have an outrageous amount of calories or salt were pretty disappointing (even the high calorie "regular" dressings weren't all that hot). The fat free Honey Mustard was OK but was more honey than mustard (2 Tbsp. 45 calories, 180 mg sodium). The fat free Italian Dressing was plain awful with a soapy taste and metallic aftertaste (just don't bother). The Ranch Dressing was, well, ranch dressing (2 Tbsp. 50 calories, 180 mg sodium). The Kahlena French Dressing was simply terrible, tasting like salty ketchup with too much sugar (not surprising at 530 mg of sodium in 2 tablespoons).
The dressing highlight was the Cucumber Dressing. It has a great fresh, summery, lightly herbed cucumber flavor. Creamy and delicious, it comes in at 50 calories but a whopping 440 mg sodium (the saltiness really comes through at the end). If you are going to have a salad with a lot of fresh veggies and none of the prepared salads, this dressing would be an OK choice. Best of all was their olive oil. It was pretty good quality and they had a choice of both red wine and balsamic vinegar.
Like the salads, the soups were hit and miss (well, more miss than hit). The Big Chunk Chicken Noodle was tasty with pretty fresh chicken flavor. It wasn't too terribly salty (490 mg in a cup). There are tasty, chewy noodles and big chunks of chicken. A fair choice. The other acceptable choice was the Pinto Bean and Basil Barley soup. It had more sodium but great flavor.
The Tomato Parmesan & Vegetables was OK with a strong oregano and fairly fresh tomato flavor. It didn't taste too terribly salty even though it has 580 mg of sodium (that's about 1/4 teaspoon of salt!). The Deep Kettle House Chili had a similar amount of salt, but that wasn't its main drawback. The chili tasted too sweet to be edible. While the nutrition info says that it only has 4 grams of sugars, it tasted like four times that.
The Broccoli Cheese was what you would expect – too much cheese and not enough broccoli and way, way, way too salty (820 mg in a single cup!).
The most amazing thing about the tasting was the baked potatoes. These were baked in foil, which is not my favorite technique (understandable for a restaurant though). They were, however, only 6 ounces! A single serving potato! Wow. Paired with some sour cream and a bit of cheese, you're doing OK because the portion size is just right.
We avoided the pitfalls of Souplantation because they are easy way to pack on the extra calories. There's a muffin and baked goods bar as well as a pasta and a desserts bar. Because most of the muffins on offer were small and started at around 150 calories they're probably not your best choice. Some of the desserts could be OK choices if you stuck with the frozen yogurt or fruit choices. The pastas start at around 350 calories for a single cup and, you guessed it, way too much salt.
All in all, a challenging restaurant. On the surface it seems really healthy with a long salad bar stocked with fantastic fresh ingredients. It can be easy to get carried away with all of those choices, but you can create a great salad that's great for you. That salad bar leads to a lot of less than healthy choices, however, so be careful. A salad and a baked potato or a salad and a cup of soup can work well for you.
Salad bar with fresh, greens and veggies. Choose the Fat Free Honey Mustard, Fat Free Ranch Dressing or olive oil and vinegar. Cucumber Dressing with caution.
Take care with the prepared salads, with good choices being Won Ton Chicken Happiness, Pineapple Coconut Slaw and Joan's Broccoli Madness.
Big Chunk Chicken Noodle or Pinto Bean and Basil Barley soups.
Baked potato with sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese.
Reviewed: May 28, 2010