Will a college student pay $8 to $11 for a wrap?
Salads UP is betting they will, and maybe some who live in the upscale Hub apartment complex above the restaurant can.
And at least one of Salad UP’s wraps, the Robbs Cobb ($11), is worth the money. It’s a winning combination of romaine, chicken, turkey bacon, feta, cherry tomatoes and hard-boiled egg. The ingredients are combined, chopped by an employee with a double-bladed mezzaluna, tossed with a fantastic shallot balsamic vinaigrette, and rolled into a big flour tortilla.
The result looks like a giant burrito and it’s a filling enough meal on its own to serve as dinner. Customers can have their wraps grilled on a panini press, which browns the tortilla without really managing to heat the contents.
The cobb was my big success story at Salads UP. Other items didn’t fare as well.
The cafe has seven cutely named salads that can become wraps for a dollar or two less. The cheapest option is a customizable “mix it up” wrap ($6). Customers pick a lettuce base (romaine, kale, spring mix, spinach or arugula) and four ingredients from a list of 25. A “mix-it-up” salad is $7.
The Yia Yia ($9) costs less than most of the other signature salads because it doesn’t include meat. The salad has spinach, chickpeas, feta, olives, red onion, cucumber, grape tomatoes — and croutons, if you want them. Quinoa is sprinkled in, but just serves as window dressing. The actual dressing, a lemon-herb vinaigrette, was tossed perfectly. The ingredients worked well together, but I ate it wishing I had made a different selection.
The Fresh Prince wrap ($8.50), another vegetarian offering, left me unfulfilled as well, and thinking Salads UP meals work better with meat. The wrap had romaine and arugula plus apple, avocado, carrots, dried cranberries, edamame and a carrot ginger dressing that barely revealed itself.
Salads UP offers a trio of thinner, already-made, grab-and-go breakfast wraps ($7). The carnivore one can be satisfying at any time of day with egg, sausage, turkey bacon, cheese, potatoes, and a light application of BBQ Russian dressing.
A white chicken chili ($5), meanwhile, was weak and watery, but full of ground chicken and white navy beans. The portion was big and by the time I finished it, I had grown to like it. The two soup choices change monthly.
I was more ambivalent about a Greek yogurt parfait ($6.50) that was topped with pineapple, sliced strawberries and shredded coconut. A honey drizzle described on the online menu was AWOL, and could’ve helped. More fruit would have been an improvement, too.
Salads UP serves a number of baked goods from Madison Sourdough, including its unrivaled croissants ($3) for a 75-cent mark-up.
An employee warned us to avoid the smoothies ($6), instead recommending the wide selection of cold-pressed juices in a refrigerated area. I still was curious about the Earthling smoothie and went ahead and ordered the spinach-pineapple-kale-broccoli-banana blended drink. It didn’t taste like there was any banana, which could have given it the creaminess it lacked.
Two juices ($5) were slightly better, but that’s not saying much. The Morning Max was somewhat interesting with carrot, orange, pineapple and coconut milk; the Purple Rain less so with blueberries, pineapple and orange.
Salads UP sits next to Colectivo, just off State Street on Frances Street. Designers made the most of the narrow and unusually-shaped space, using lots of bright colors, predominantly green, and communal tables and counters. Broccoli and carrot art is spunky, as is the sign, “grab life by the balsamic.”
The pop music late one night was too loud, but at the right volume on a lunch visit when the cafe was busier.
Madison’s Salads UP opened in October as the second location for two recent University of Michigan grads, Max Steir and Robby Mayer, who opened the first one in Ann Arbor in January 2015.
Steir and Mayer are looking into other college markets including Evanston, Illinois, and Columbus, Ohio.
For two young guys with a vision of healthy fast food, I applaud them for seizing on a trend. That an enormous, burrito-looking wrap costs $11 is a function of high-quality ingredients and high campus rents. Hopefully, it won’t put people off.