Fast, quality food from Bandera

November 4, 2009 (CHICAGO) Bandera, which occupies a second floor perch above the 500-block of North Michigan, has created an addictive salad and an equally impressive wedge of cornbread. Lunchtime is crazy-busy for Bandera, part of a LA-based chain.

"Especially for lunch the salads are extremely popular; it's a great size, and a great value, and obviously great flavor," said Tracy Smith, the GM of Bandera.

One of the standouts is the Macho Salad. It has nothing to do with testosterone, but it does have a back story, involving taking a salad to a resident of a zoo.

"It was an ape who was sick in the zoo in California and they took a macho salad to him and he actually got better and his name was Macho so we called it a Macho salad," said Smith.

It may not improve health, but it certainly is delicious. They start with rotisserie chicken, mainly, by pulling off the smoky, juicy pieces of thigh and breast meat, then adding it to a mixing bowl. In goes ripe avocado and homemade cornbread croutons.. plus an assortment of mixed greens, including peppery arugula. Everything is well-incorporated, before some chopped dates are tossed in, then the creamy house vinaigrette. The salad is tossed again - rather vigorously I might add - then plated, and the toppings continue: sliced tomatoes, fresh corn, a few sliced almonds for crunch.. and the final touch: a dollop of fresh goat cheese with adds just the right note of richness.

Remember those cornbread croutons? They're no accident. Homemade cornbread is a signature dish here. They mix up batches all day long. Eggs, corn, butter and sugar are combined with both cheddar and jack cheese.. plus some whole green chilies. When they combine the wet ingredients with the flour, cornmeal and baking powder, one of their secrets has been to not mix it up completely.

"All the details are extremely important, how we don't mix it very much so it's nice and moist, it's all fresh product the egg, and creamed corn, jalapeno so it's a little bit of spice, the recipe is just a little unique," Smith said.

Once the cornbread is removed from the oven, it is warm, oozing comfort, with just the right balance of texture and richness. You can see - and taste - instantly, why almost every table in the place has one.

"They're constantly going in the oven and coming out, it's every table there is cornbread on every table," said Smith.

There are, of course, other salads on the menu-- ad the cornbread comes in two sizes. Just know that during events like the Michigan Avenue Lights Festival dining room will be swamped with onlookers.

535 N. Michigan Ave.

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