Top five side dishes that could use a makeover

Restaurants owned and managed by smart people know that diners are interested in the main attraction: the steaks, the chickens, the fish, the enchiladas, even the sandwiches. But although customers don't necessarily get up and do the hustle when they think about what sides come with their meals, they are paying for those little piles archipelagoed around the protein, or the ramekins perched on the plateware. So when servers cart away plates still littered with ignored and discarded sides, it's a sorry waste of food, a waste of money and a waste of time for whoever prepared them.

Still, some simple innovations could save space in garbage cans and also convince hungry patrons to make at least a perfunctory effort to taste that vegetable. So here's our list of the top five side dishes that could use a makeover:

5. Fresh vegetables. First and foremost, diners aren't dumb enough to actually believe that California blend is either "seasonal" all year round, or "fresh" most of the time. Slopping a bag of frozen carrots, broccoli and cauliflower into boiling water and then dousing the vegetables with greasy, separated butter and parsley is about as inspired as microwaving a Hot Pocket -- and just as breathtaking. One of the rapidly dying benefits of dining out is that you get something better than what you'd throw into a pot at home, so why not dispense with the buttered broccoli B.S. and offer some nice steamed julienne carrots with lime, honey and cilantro? Or a side of cauliflower with a creamy shrimp sauce? Bok choy never killed anyone, and some toasted sesame seeds and a splash of ponzu sauce might actually get adults to eat their veggies.

4. Rice pilaf. This classic Persian dish has been systematically weaseled down to white rice boiled in chicken bouillon and speckled with a few bits of carrot, celery and peas. It's common knowledge in the food-service industry that this quasi-rice pilaf is a cheap filler, but if nobody is actually eating it, then it's still pennies being wasted, and eventually that will add up to real money. Strategically placing a handful of wild rice, almonds, cranberries and chives in a pan of ordinary rice will make it interesting, and adding a hint of saffron and tomato, or even lemon and mint, will spruce it up to the point where a few bites might make it into someone's spit hole instead of the garbage bin.

3. Cole slaw. You could probably fill several football stadiums with the vast quantities of cole slaw that are scraped from sandwich plates every day. And it's not necessarily the diners who are to blame for this massive slaw-dump. A watery pile of wilted cabbage punctuated with unpalatable carrot shreds isn't exactly appealing to the eyes or the eating orifice. Adding diced apples, cucumber and sunflower seeds will put some punch into the mix, and a touch of rice wine vinegar and sugar will make a nice flavor balance.

2. Potato salad. Another boring, sweet pickle relished glop of tater salad brings too much emotional baggage associated with drunken, drama-infused family reunions and excruciating company picnics, so kill it. Kill it dead. Try making your potato salad with some toasty bacon bits and minced red onion, or add black olive slices and roasted red peppers.

1. Spanish rice. Finding yet another crap-pile of bland, dry, flavorless Spanish rice taking up space on your plate is adequate grounds for divorcing the restaurant you could have loved forever. A makeover here would be a good subject for a reality show, because it will take an enormous amount of cosmetic surgery to even get this side dish to a passable beauty. Step one, try making moisture a priority instead of an option. Step two, add flavor -- cumin is not hard to come by. Step three, stand back and watch people magically take an interest.

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