Mad Greens comes up maddeningly short in Cherry Creek

I learned about Mad Greens, the Denver-based, salad-serving fast-casual chain shortly after I moved to Denver. I spotted one of the stores on the 16th Street Mall, and figured the eatery catered to on-the-go, single health nuts and people who made lunch dates for reasons other than eating. So naturally, I passed it by.

But one day recently, I finally stopped in at the Mad Greens location in Cherry Creek. I won't make that mistake again.

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Mad Greens was planted in the south suburbs -- the first location was near Park Meadows Mall -- in 2004 by business partners Marley Hodgson and Dan Long. There are currently eleven locations along the Front Range, with out-of-state expansion plans that have yet to sprout.

The concept behind Mad Greens isn't bad: quick-fast-in-a-hurry, healthy meals offered in a clean-but-spartan environment should appeal to a decent-sized demographic of young, hip, health-conscious (there are vegan and vegetarian options) urban diners. But how this concept plays out in real life is maddening.

When I walked into the store during a post-lunch lull, the place was hideously unclean. Almost all the tables were dirty, and there were wadded napkins, bits of croutons and lettuce scattered on the tables, the chairs, the benches and the floors. Except for two employees manning the counter, the restaurant was deserted.

The menu features every conceivable salad combination, as well as a CYO salad for folks who want what they want but want someone else to craft it for them -- cool and convenient. The list of available proteins includes marinated grilled or crispy chicken, marinated tuna, portobello mushrooms and tofu, flank steak and salmon -- all for a $2 to $3 upcharge. You can top the salad with dressings ranging from the standard ranch/bleu cheese/Italian/French lot to lemon-curry, cherry vinaigrette, horseradish ranch, roasted red pepper and sherry-molasses vinaigrette. Toppings are the usual suspects, plus quite a few fresh choices like cannellini beans, mangoes, sugar snap peas, pears, edamame and couscous with dried fruit.

I ordered a big Crazy Ivan salad with baby greens, roasted beets, pumpkin seeds, house croutons and goat cheese, and added portobello mushrooms with sherry-molasses vinaigrette, as well as a regular-sized Ty Cobb with romaine lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, bacon, red onion and eggs, with bleu cheese dressing, and added salmon, with bleu cheese dressing. And I went for a small bowl of Italian wedding soup -- the de jour for that day.

The employees were friendly enough, but kept jumping in and out of each other's way to make my two salads. Since they were made right in front of me, at least I got to correct about four screw-ups. The employees were constructing my salads with minced bits of ingredients held in little plastic tubs, and it seemed weird that everything was cut, chopped and diced so tiny and uniformly-sized; I suspected most, if not all, of the salad makings came in premade. When I asked if the soup was made in-house, one employee stared at me quizzically, then replied that it came from "Shamrock." That turned out to be Shamrock Foods, a regional food-service company. It was a let-down to realize that little on the menu was constructed on-site beyond the croutons.

The salads weren't bad -- but they just didn't justify the cost. Both had been tossed in dressing, and I had to go salad-spelunking to locate both the toppings that came on the salads and the proteins I'd paid extra for; the tiny bits of beet and fragments of portobello were few and far between in my Crazy Ivan. I found the salmon easily in my Ty Cab, but the flakes of rather bland, cold fish were no bonus. And the soup tasted like Campbell's, with the same over-boiled bits of meatballs and mushy pasta nibs.

The whole time I was at Mad Greens, nobody came out to tidy the dining area -- I had to clean off a table with a wet wipe out of my purse, and scrape a seat clean to sit on. And no one else came in to eat there, either. A couple of older ladies plopped down at one of the patio tables to chat, and one came in and ordered an iced tea; a soccer mom in yoga pants got a salad to go.

They had the right idea. Mad Greens isn't the kind of restaurant where you want to linger. Or even eat at.

My two salads, small soup and iced tea cost about $30 at Mad Greens. I could have jogged across the street to the Cherry Creek Whole Foods, made a couple of salads from the humongous bar filled with fresh ingredients, and spent about the same amount of money. And I was mad that I hadn't.

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