When it comes to iceberg lettuce, I'm with James Beard. "I would like to say a few words in defense of iceberg lettuce," the renowned American cookbook author once wrote, "a green that has been utterly damned by the food snobs in this country." Yes, homely cabbage-like iceberg lacks the spicy thrill of arugula, the cachet of frisée, the heartiness of kale, the bitter crunch of endive, and the tenderness of green leaf. But when it comes to texture, these greens have got nothing on iceberg's pure and beautiful crunch.
Iceberg lettuce was known as crisphead lettuce until the late 1920s, when Bruce Church had the idea to start shipping lettuce from Salinas, California, across the country. Because this predated the refrigerated train car or truck, heads were packed in ice. (Church's company is now called Fresh Express, currently as well known for its bagged salads as it is for nationwide recalls due to listeria and salmonella.) According to the Fresh Express website, "Church sent his lettuce by rail from California as far away as the coast of Maine and, as the locomotive steamed its way to each new stop, the town folk would gather along the tracks calling out with anticipation: 'The icebergs are coming, the icebergs are coming!'"
At the time, having lettuce available year-round was a revelation. The name "iceberg" stuck, as did the lettuce's popularity—at least until the late 1990s, when more exciting greens like oakleaf, red leaf, romaine, mesclun, and spring mix started coming into fashion. Since then, iceberg's gotten a bad rap, and its share in the country's lettuce market has steadily declined. (Beard himself later called iceberg "watery and tasteless," though he didn't rescind any words about its texture.)
According to Mary Zischke of the California Leafy Greens Research Program, iceberg lettuce "started tracking significantly lower in 2002, and it's basically gone down a little bit every year since then."
Zischke says she believes that while iceberg's market share will likely decrease a bit more, the downward trend is flattening out. "It's a staple of the food-service industry and it's still enjoyed by people in the middle of the country," she says. "Between the middle of the country and the popularity of the wedge salad, I think consumption is going to stay put."
Thank god. There are few things I love more than a wedge salad: shatteringly crisp hunks of iceberg drowned in smooth, creamy dressing. Flavor-wise, bland iceberg is happy to take a backseat to salty, smoky bacon and the deep funk of blue cheese. The ideal wedge also includes sprinklings of sharp green onion and sweet tomato. While I enjoy making my favorite version at home on summer nights (I roast the tomatoes, which concentrates their sweetness) to accompany burgers that we grill outside, I'm always thrilled when I see a wedge salad on menus around town. I am utterly incapable of not ordering it.
At Jack's BBQ on Airport Way, the salad ($7) is big and basic: half of a head of iceberg, cut into two wedges, with a very generous helping of house-made blue cheese dressing, as well as tiny squares of house-smoked bacon. The dressing is particularly nice, studded with crumbles of chewy, pungent cheese. On my visit, though, the bacon was unpleasantly dry and gamey rather than smoky, which is a surprise considering Jack's is a temple of otherwise excellently smoked meats. Perhaps the bacon is just an afterthought, which, sadly, is exactly what my wedge salad became, especially next to a pile of the restaurant's tender and heavenly brisket.
Over in West Seattle, at the unapologetically dim and traditional-style steakhouse Jak's Grill, the wedge salad ($10) is almost over the top: slim wedges of iceberg buried under blue cheese chunks, bacon flakes, diced tomato, scallion slices, hard-boiled egg, toasted almond slivers, croutons, and a balsamic vinaigrette. This is a salad that demands a steak knife.
I was a bit skeptical of the nontraditional ingredients at first, but it turns out the egg and almonds are wonderful additions, enhancing the salad with extra creaminess and crunch. I ended up eating around the croutons, which were oil-soaked and dusted in dried herbs, and tasted like they came from a box. The balsamic vinaigrette was just a bit too sweet, and I found myself wanting more scallions and acid to counter the sugar. A full-size salad is more than enough for one person—and it may be the only nap-inducing salad I've ever encountered.
In contrast, the iceberg wedge ($8.25) at Slim's Last Chance Chili Shack in Georgetown will awaken your senses—especially if you enjoy it out on the patio, under the sunshine with a mason jar of beer in hand. Slim's does the basics of the salad—wedges, creamy dressing with plenty of blue cheese bits, tomato, bacon, and scallions—quite well, but you should definitely opt to upgrade the salad and add buffalo crawfish ($4.95 extra). The meat is spicy, soft, and sweet, with just the perfect little vinegar tang, and as a bonus, you get a little squeeze of creamy, piquant rémoulade on top. It's pure comfort, with an added bit of excitement.
At the more staid Frank's Oyster House & Champagne Parlor in Ravenna, a neighborhood favorite that hits the perfect balance between classic and modern in both food and decor, the wedge salad ($9.25) feels like something entirely new and wonderful. This is saying a lot, since Frank's wedge doesn't involve any blue cheese, but rather a green goddess dressing. It's tart and buttermilky and packed with fresh herbs, most notably an abundance of chives. The salad comes with few shaved red radishes, which add a nice bite, but the star here is the thick-cut bacon, cut into half-inch cubes like lardons. While most places tend to dress their salads with flakes of overcooked, dry bacon, Frank's serves hefty room-temperature chunks with significant amounts of fat that melts on the tongue, adding breathtaking richness.
The only problem? The lettuce. Tragically, Frank's has done away with the iceberg, opting instead for bibb. While the bibb hearts are sturdy and crisp, the outer leaves are too soft and insubstantial. How I longed for that familiar iceberg crunch.