Sriracha -- or cock sauce, as it's commonly called -- is that fiery red chile sauce that comes in the squeezy bottle with the green tip and the white picture of a rooster. It's also popular as hell right now, gracing the big-box grocery-chain aisles and the tables of fast-casual restaurants across town -- when just a decade ago I had to hunt the stuff down in Asian markets like I was trying to find a unicorn in the deep, dark woods. It's so universal today, in fact, that our local salad chain, Mad Greens, even offers a Sriracha-almond vinaigrette for its newest seasonal salad, the Genghis Khan, which turns out to be just as aggressively tasty as its name suggests, complete with seared, wild ahi tuna on top.
Mad Greens was first planted in the southern suburbs by Marley Hodgson and Dan Long in 2004; there are currently eleven locations along the Front Range, with out-of-state expansion plans sprouting. The concept is salads and more salads, quick-fast-in-a-hurry, with healthy sides, offered in a spartan environment appealing to a decent-sized demographic of young, hip, health-conscious (there are vegan and vegetarian options) urban diners.
I was disappointed the first time I dined at the Cherry Creek location of Mad Greens -- the dining room was in dire need of cleaning and the salad ingredients were unsatisfying -- but my recent dinner visit to the 16th Street Mall location at 1600 Stout Street was a real improvement. The dining room was sparkling clean, without a stray napkin or straw wrapper to be seen, and the super-friendly staff was very attentive.
For example, they asked what amount of dressing I wanted on my salad -- a little, a medium amount or a lot. This is a small detail that makes a big difference with entrée salads, because the best salad in the universe can easily be ruined by too much -- or not enough -- dressing. But this dressing was the housemade, spicy Sriracha-almond vinaigrette -- so I asked for a lot. Beyond that, the Genghis Khan includes baby greens, diced ripe mango, shredded carrots, roasted sweet corn, crisp wonton strips and chopped green onions.
Mad Greens has also rolled out a new protein add-on -- wild, seared-rare ahi tuna -- that's recommended for the Genghis Kahn but available on any salad. The tuna is thick-sliced, hand-crusted and seared just to the point of grill marks and grey edges. The upcharge for the tuna is formidable -- $5 for a three-to-four ounce serving; since the regular-sized salad I'd ordered cost $5.60, the tuna topping basically doubled the price.
So I was seriously hoping that this was going to be good.
And it was. The cold, seared ahi -- sourced from the Pacific, wild and line-caught -- tasted like fish but wasn't fishy. The flesh was deep pink and meaty with a mild saline flavor, and crusted with Mad Greens's own blend of spices, ginger and bread crumbs -- made from homemade croutons using Udi's bread. My only gentle gripe was that I wanted more than the portion I got, but I'm comfortable chalking that up to my innate pig gene that activates every time I taste really good seared tuna.
The salad itself was fine: The greens were fresh, the corn gave it a bit of summery brightness, the mango added plenty of sweetness and appealing color. It was a bit heavy on the carrots and wonton strips, but the dressing was gorgeous: sweet almond and spicy cock sauce is a killing combo.
I asked Mad Greens CEO and co-founder Marley Hodgson who had the hot idea.
"The spicy Sriracha almond vinaigrette was an idea that Dan and I have been working on for several months," says Hodgson. "You're not alone in your love for the sauce. We love it -- and I read an article earlier in the year wherein the Huffington Post called Sriracha 'astronomically popular!' Dan and I had that on our minds when developing the new dressing and, more importantly, from a desire to craft a crave-able, spicy menu item that still fit in the 'Better-for-you' mold and wasn't loaded with the fat, sugar, etc. that many crave-able dishes are. Additionally, we both have always liked Asian flavors, especially Southeast Asian, and this was a great way to incorporate it."
And Hodgson says there are more Mad plans for the chain coming. "For starters, we have our own farm this year -- and you're hearing it first!" says Hodgson. "We don't own the land, but Golden-based Agriburbia is managing a one-acre plot in Elizabeth south of Denver for us. We pay all the farming costs and Agriburbia does the farming and distribution for us. The produce will be distributed two to three times per week to all of our locations. Starting in mid-to-late July (depending on growing conditions), we will be getting all of our grape and cherry tomatoes as well as cucumbers from the farm. We estimate that this will last for two- to two-and-a-half months. Additionally, we are growing radishes which we intend to pickle and use in salads and kale and various herbs -- all for use in the restaurants."
The all-locally-grown Alfred Packer salad will be back again soon, too; Hodgson is predicting late July, depending on when the local peaches are available. He and Long are working on a roasted root vegetable salad for the fall and early winter. And in a couple of weeks, Mad will introduce a new menu component called the "Duo/Trio menu," with choices of eight small plates ranging from lettuce wraps to kale salads and beyond.
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So long as I can put Mad Greens's Sriracha dressing on everything, we're all good.