Lunch in the Loop

Reviews of restaurants in the Loop.

Lunch in the Loop: Get Your Next Salad at the Farmer's Fridge Vending Machine

Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.

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[Photographs: Dennis Lee]

So, I basically found the greatest thing ever. When I wrote my last review at the Food Court That Time Forgot, I found a strange vending machine as I was on my way out. It was a shining beacon in the depressing darkness of the food court, beaming brightly at my pale winter-stricken face. I mean, seriously. Behold the glory of the Farmer's Fridge.

I guess it shouldn't be that surprising. Our man Farley Elliot tried all the sad burritos at the burrito vending machine in Los Angeles. Hell, they probably sell prepackaged salads in some refrigerated vending machines somewhere else, too. But this one is awesome. It has a cool touchscreen display, and you can see all the salads neatly arranged like baby ducks in a row. Perhaps I am a sad lonely person to find so much pleasure in a machine like this, but this may be the greatest discovery in Lunch in the Loop history.

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All the salads come in cool reusable plastic jars and clock in at $8 each. When you order, a platform on rails moves up to your salad, the machine horks it into the tray, and then you pick it out at the bottom, except without the shame you get when you're buying a decade-old bag of Famous Amos cookies in the basement of your office building.

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How do they keep the salads fresh and not soggy, you ask? Well, for starters, they put all the potentially soggy toppings at the bottom of each jar in neat layers. And where is the dressing, you ask? It's on the top of each jar in a little plastic cup. Genius! How fresh is the salad? Glad you asked that one too! According to their website, every salad is made daily (at 5 a.m., in case you were wondering), and any salads that aren't sold at the end of the day are donated to local food pantries.

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Are the salads any good? I'm happy to report that some of them are indeed good. The Cheater Salad is quite similar to a Cobb salad. This one has romaine lettuce, turkey bacon, white cheddar, hard-boiled egg, sunflower seeds, corn, carrots, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and honey mustard dressing. All the components are fresh, cool, and crisp. They do use turkey bacon, which is no substitute for my favorite smoked piggy belly, but since they're being health conscious, it's not a dealbreaker. The honey mustard dressing is tart and sweet (maybe too sweet), but as long as you go easy on it, you'll be fine.

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The Antioxidant Salad comes with mixed greens, goat cheese, mixed berries, almonds, carrot, sprouts, flax seed and white balsamic vinaigrette. And you know, it's just a personal preference of mine, but I generally don't like fruit in my salads. Crisp ones are okay, like apples and pears, but berries kind of throw me off. If you like fruit in your salad, then this one will do you just fine.

In case the fruit isn't sweet enough, the white balsamic vinaigrette will help add the necessary sugar to amp up your tart berries. In my opinion, the vinaigrette is much too sweet, especially with sweet components like fruit and carrots. The goat cheese breaks up the sugar a little, but since there isn't much cheese, it doesn't help the situation much.

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The High Protein Salad is filled with spinach, chickpeas, Parmesan, corn, peas, quinoa, figs, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, and lemon tahini dressing. This one is my least favorite, mainly because the lemon tahini salad dressing is straight-up sour. I like the thickness of the dressing (the other salads tend to have watery dressing), and I enjoy the roasted sesame flavor of the tahini, but the lemon juice is so strong that it hijacks all the other flavors of the salad.

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If you've noticed that all of these salads are lacking in meat, well, here you go. Meat (additional $2) comes in little jars on the side, but you have to order it separately. The lemon pepper chicken (pictured at right) is moist diced chicken breast, and it has a surprisingly deep poultry flavor; it's easy to tell that this is high-quality chicken. The tuna salad (pictured at left), sadly, is bone dry. Even salad dressing can't stop the tuna from sucking moisture from your mouth.

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If you're looking for more than just salad, there are sides, though most of them were out of stock when I visited. However, I did manage to snag lentil chili ($4.25) which is admittedly not very pretty looking. In terms of flavor, it seems more like a lentil soup and isn't very chili-like. There's not much cumin, tomato, or chili pepper. Would I spend $4.25 on it again? Probably not.

While the jars are an easy way to transport your lunch, they're also a pain in the ass. Farmer's Fridge proudly suggests you eat the salad out of the jar, but mixing the salad is impossible, and you end up having to mow down a bunch of the greens before you get anywhere near the goodies at the bottom. Just dump it onto a plate.

Overall, is it worth it? These salads are definitely quick, healthy, and well sourced, there's no doubt about that. At $8 for a slightly small serving (plus $2 for extra protein), I'm on the fence. But I think the sheer joy of watching a vending machine serve you salad is worth at least one go at it. For now, I will enjoy the subservient robots giving me food. That is, until Skynet becomes active.

About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.

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