What is it about deli salads that make them so wonderful? Let’s take a moment to consider how they are greater than the sum of their parts: They involve a lot of fresh ingredients, skillfully combined; they can be a side dish or a main, especially if you have two or three to choose from; and (my favorite feature), they exist in that sweet spot of tasting better after sitting for a while, but need to be consumed fairly quickly.

They also happen to be one of the things Art Mart does best. I recently tried six salads to get a sense of how they handle different types: potato, pasta, veggie only, and so on.

What unites all Art Mart salads seems to be their light, clean flavors. The individual ingredients in each salad shine because the salads themselves aren’t overly dressed. Whereas some stores may cheat a little and use a heavy hand with the oil or mayo, the chefs at Art Mart seem to prefer a quick toss in a lighter dressing.

For most of the salads I tried, I would say this approach is perfect. None of them had me reaching for my salt shaker — I’m not shy about using it — which is a pretty good judgment on the salads as a whole.

As you read the reviews, please keep two things in mind: I bought mine from the grab-and-go area, but there is a wider variety of salads and other ready-to-eat items at the deli counter. (I am a big fan of the grab-and-go area, where the salads are portioned into single serving containers).Also, I believe they vary up their offerings, so you may not be able to find all of the ones I’m reviewing here if you visit.

Hill Country Potato Salad ($5.99/lb)

The big surprise from this one was the HEAT. I wasn’t expecting such a wallop from something that looks more or less like a really good, if standard, potato salad. It has all of the expected mix-ins: celery, onion, egg, mustard (used sparingly, which I like), and mayo. I had to go back and check the ingredients list to find the source of the spiciness and there it was: pickled jalapeño. Cumin was also listed, although I don’t really remember tasting it.

I certainly prefer unexpected heat to unexpected sweetness, which is too often present in deli potato salads, but blissfully missing from theirs.

Smoked Gouda Pasta ($7.99/lb)

What I remember most about this salad is how pretty it was and how perfectly they cooked the pasta (some sort of slightly twisty, ridged elbow macaroni, like cavatappi but shorter). It had the perfect teeth-meet-in-the-middle bite to it.

The name had me believing the first bite would be a flavor bomb, but it wasn’t. The overall effect was of a light but substantial dish that let the individual components (bites of pasta, spinach, and smaller chunks of roasted red pepper and gouda) speak for themselves.

Pea Salad ($7.99/lb)

To me, peas are the miniature Christmas village of foods: the older I get, the more I enjoy them.

What I liked best about Art Mart’s pea salad were the chunks of green onion and white and yellow cheddar. Against the basic canvas of peas, mayo, salt, and pepper, they stood out as pleasant bursts of flavor and texture.

Tuna Pasta Salad ($7.99/lb)

Last summer’s family vacation to the Gulf left me chasing the dragon in terms of eating seafood whenever I get the chance, so I couldn’t pass this one up. As with the other salads, the flavors in this one were simple and clean. I like that it would be fairly effortless to recreate it at home, because we are almost never without pasta, mayo, and tuna. The added veggies — tomato, cucumber, and green onion — did a nice job of making the flavor light and bright (especially the tomato).

Sesame Broccoli ($5.99/lb)

The barely-used bottle of sesame oil in my fridge can attest to the fact that, while I’m drawn to that ingredient, I struggle to use it correctly. Art Mart’s sesame broccoli salad is proof of what I suspected all along: that in correct combination with other components — in this case, broccoli, garlic, green onion, soy sauce, sesame seeds, and a little salt and pepper — its flavor is almost sublime. I think the fact that it’s a chilled salad helped make the toasty, slightly bitter character of the sesame oil shine by providing contrast.

Chickpea Quinoa ($7.99/lb)

Finding that this was my favorite of all the salads surprised me. Going in, there was nothing about it I didn’t like, but I’m a pretty typical Midwestern woman in terms of taste. I think, however, if you put this up against bacon ranch potato salad, I might choose the chickpea quinoa.

The salad’s success comes down to three things: a palate-pleasing mix of textures, super fresh veggies, and an inspired dill mayo dressing. It is exactly the type of dish my body cries out for at the end of the holiday season when it is suffering from meat and cheese overload: something to nourish mind, body, and soul. Of course, it, and all of the ones I tried, is a perfect thing to have in the fridge this time of year, when salads rule.

Art Mart
1705 S Prospect
Champaign
M-Sa 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Su 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
 

Photos by Rachael McMillan