This Chicken Salad Has It All

The things I miss most about Sweet Tomatoes are sitting across from Becky at a booth close to the salad bar (so we could refill our plates as quickly as possible); catching up on the humdrum of our young-adult lives (e.g., my latest breakup, her latest archnemesis); and absolutely depleting the buffet of its round bowl of won-ton chicken salad. A leafy number featuring crispy fried won-ton strips and crunchy greens, the chicken salad was dressed in a sweet-and-savory dressing that tasted of Asian ingredients, like soy sauce and sesame oil, but that came from anywhere but Asia. The salad, which Garden Fresh debuted in 1993 and eventually renamed Wonton Happiness, would be, for me, the zenith of lunch, a feeling I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life.

The salad possessed the kind of deliciously manufactured quality that often comes from one culture’s interpretation (or wild guess) of what another culture’s food might taste like, which is neither real nor fake in its origin, and remains a phantasm throughout its life and into its death. That’s because this salad — and its antecedent, historically called “Chinese chicken salad,” “Asian chicken salad” and, at its worst, “Oriental chicken salad” — refers to nothing, really, other than an idea of what flavors from East Asian countries might be. The Thai Crunch Salad at California Pizza Kitchen and the Chinese Chicken Salad at Cheesecake Factory come to mind, as does the Chinois Chicken Salad at Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois in Santa Monica. These kinds of dishes might not be authentic to anything but their creators, but they can still become touchstones of food memory for those who eat them. This is either good or bad, depending on how you feel about the transmutation of culture, but when it comes to won-ton chicken salad, I’m grateful for its anchoring role in my life and in Becky’s as the salad that had it all.

In 2019, I was in the room with Becky in a vacation rental in Seattle when she found out that her father, my Uncle Young, had died suddenly. Not enough people talk about the incredible loss of appetite that happens when you lose someone you love. When we got to the airport, it had been nearly 24 hours since we heard the news, and Becky hadn’t eaten a thing. I forced her to have a glass of red wine and French fries, and luckily she obliged. When we made our way to the gate for our flight back to Atlanta, she turned to me and asked, “Do you think it’s better to lose someone suddenly or to have them go slowly?” I said what I thought she wanted to hear, and we boarded the plane.

Uncle Young would have turned 65 this month. I regret that I never got to cook for him, but he cooked for us cousins all the time. Among his specialties were crispy lake trout with lemon pepper, bacon-wrapped filets mignons with A.1. Sauce, kielbasa boiled in Tostitos salsa and beer and grilled chicken wings imbued with jalapeño, cilantro and sake. Despite his carnivorous leanings, he would probably approve of this salad. The supporting character that lets the crispy won tons shine is the punchy dressing of peach preserves, rice vinegar, sesame oil and chili powder. The dressing’s high liquid-to-oil ratio means the salad greens can stay crunchy and keep for longer (it’s the oil in vinaigrettes, not the vinegar, that deteriorates lettuces), which means you can make this the night before a gathering.