BEST Southwest Salad

Southwest Salad is far more delicious than any restaurant salad at a fraction of the cost!    

This Southwest Salad recipe has quickly become one of my most popular and most pinned recipes of all time.  It’s fresh, filling, flavorful, gluten-free and will have you actually CRAVING salad!  This Southwest Salad is bursting with red bell peppers, tomatoes, fresh sweet corn, black beans, pepitas, Pepper Jack cheese, romaine lettuce, and tortilla chips or strips all bathed in Creamy Avocado Salsa Dressing.  The dressing alone is worth making this recipe!  You can dress this Southwest Salad up or down by adding chicken or more or less of your favorite ingredients to make it YOUR favorite Southwest Salad!  

pouring Southwest Salad Dressing into a wood bowl of Southwest Salad

Southwest Salad Recipe

With summer upon us, I am dreaming about everything cool and refreshing, healthy and bright, yet hearty and filling at the same time; enter Southwest Salad.  This Southwest Salad recipe is hearty, savory, fresh, creamy, flavorful, healthy and irresistibly crunchy AKA deeply satisfying.  I love a salad where lettuce is the afterthought, more of an in-between filler of all other things delicious. This Southwest Salad is no exception.

More reasons to love this Southwest Salad Recipe:

  • Quick and easy.  Just chop your veggies, blend your dressing and dig in!
  • Make ahead.  You can assemble your salad and make your dressing ahead of time and store in the refrigerator so it’s all ready for lunch, dinner or potlucks without the last-minute hustle.
  • Texture heaven. I learned a long time ago that the best salads have TONS of texture.  Every salad needs a nut or seed, crunchy veggies and cheese.   And this Southwest Salad is loaded with them.
  • Versatile.  You can add more or less of your favorite veggies or swap in your favorites.  You can add chicken, shrimp or any other protein to make it a complete meal, or leave it as for the best side salad of your life.
  • Crowd pleaser.  EVERYONE loves this Southwest Salad!  It’s a favorite dish for potlucks, pool parties, picnics and HOME!
  • Best Southwest Dressing. I have a whole section so I won’t go into too much detail except you are going go crazy over the dressing, its fiesta flavors make me giddy!  It’s silky, mega flavorful and the perfect enlivening accompaniment to the fiesta veggies.

Ingredients for Southwest Salad

  • Romaine lettuce: I love how crunchy romaine is but you can also use half romaine, half iceberg lettuce or your favorite spring mix. When using lettuce, discard any flimsy outer leaves for the crunchiest lettuce.
  • Corn.  You will need one sweet corn on the cob and then cut the kernels straight from the cob.  If you want to ramp up your Southwest Salad, you can grill the corn first or toast it in the skillet – I’ve included instructions below. If using canned corn, take care to rinse and drain it first. If using frozen corn, you don’t need to thaw it before you add it to the hot skillet. If using frozen corn, you will need to cook it a couple minutes longer in order for it to char.
  • Red Bell pepper:  I use red bell pepper because it is sweeter than other colors, but feel free to substitute for whatever color bell pepper you have on hand.
  • Tomatoes.  Please use grape or cherry tomatoes because they the best texture.  They have less watery flesh than Roma tomatoes and are the perfect bite-size juicy morsels when halved.  Cherry tomatoes are inherently sweeter than grape tomatoes, so aim for cherry if you can.
  • Red onion.  I like the fresh pop of red onion but you may also use green onions.  If you’re not a fan of raw red onions, you can cook them 30 seconds or so in the microwave to soften the bite or use less.
  • Black Beans. You may also substitute red kidney beans, pinto beans etc.  No matter what bean you use, rinse and dry them first.
  • Pepitas. If you aren’t familiar with pepitas, they are pumpkin seeds.  You can also substitute with sunflower seeds.  Whichever you use, make sure they are roasted and salted which translates to FLAVOR!  I purchase my seeds in the bulk bins at Sprouts.
  • Cheese.  I love the addition of pepper Jack Cheese to this Southwest Salad.  It adds cheesy, creaminess with a hint of heat.  You may also use Mexican cheese blend, but next time, go for the buttery pepper Jack!
  • Tortilla Strips.  And of course, no Southwest Salad would be complete without chips – AKA tortilla strips.  I’m all about adding chips to a salad under the guise of tortilla strips. Brilliant.  You can also easily make your own tortilla strips like I do in my Chicken Tortilla Soup, or you can purchase tortilla strips for salad which are usually located near/at the end of the produce aisles.  I particularly love the Santé Fe Style tortilla strips from Fresh gourmet – the spicing on them is the crowning jewel to an already jaw dropping – as in shove more salad in me please – salad. You can also use your favorite tortilla chips or even spicy or flavored tortilla chips to mix up the flavor profile.
showing how to make healthy Southwest Salad by adding romaine lettuce, tomatoes, black beans, cheese, bell peppers and pepitas

HOW TO CHAR CORN for SOUTHWEST SALAD

For this Southwest Salad, you can use corn straight off the cob or you can grill it.  I love grilling corn because it results in deeply sweet, succulent, smoky corn, instead of just sweet corn.  If you don’t have time, don’t worry about it, if you do, you will LOVE it!

You can char your corn directly on the grill (no foil needed) or you can sizzle it a hot cast iron skillet.  Here is how:

TO GRILL CORN ON THE COB:

  • Peel the corn
  • Remove all the silk
  • Lightly brush all over with olive oil
  • Season with salt and pepper on all sides
  • Grease and heat grill to high heat
  • Grill corn over direct heat for 10-12 minutes, turning until lightly charred on all sides, closing the lid in between rotations.

TO CHAR CORN IN A SKILLET:

If you don’t have corn on the cob or have access to a grill, you can still char frozen, canned, or fresh corn in a cast iron skillet:

  • Heat one tablespoon olive oil in large cast iron skillet over high heat.
  • Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until corn starts to char, approximately 5 minutes (a few minutes longer if frozen)
  • Transfer kernels to a large bowl to cool so they don’t continue to cook.

Southwest Salad Dressing

This Southwest Salad Dressing is lusciously smooth, creamy and deserves its own mariachi encore.  The ingredient list is somewhat lengthy for the dressing, but it comes together in less than 5 minutes because all you do is add the ingredients to the blender and blend until smooth – so please don’t be intimidated – I promise it’s so worth it.

I love the dressing so much I doubled it just so I could have leftovers to douse my burritos in.  I’m pretty certain you will love it too.

Ingredients for Southwest Salad Dressing:

  • Avocado.  You will need one medium avocado for the dressing – not the large Haas avocados.  Make sure your avocado is ripe so it blends well and doesn’t leave you with a chunky, grass flavored dressing.
    • HOW TO PICK RIPE AVOCADOS:
  •  Ripe avocados will be dark green, almost turning purple.
  • Gently squeeze the avocado.  If an avocado feels firm or hard to your touch, it isn’t ripe yet. Purchase it only if you plan to use the fruit several days in the future.  If the avocado feels soft, it’s overripe, avoid it.  You want the avocado to just give slightly when pressed.
  •  Check the avocado stems for clues on what’s inside. Peel back the small stem or cap at the top. If the area underneath is green, the avocado is good to buy. If the area is brown, the avocado is overripe so it’s best to avoid it
  • Sour Cream or Greek Yogurt.  You can use either sour cream or Greek yogurt for the Southwest Dressing.  Fat-free versions of both work great as well.  Just don’t use regular yogurt because it is not nearly as thick as Greek yogurt.
  • Salsa.  Use your favorite salsa or my homemade 5-minute blender salsa is spectacular.  If you know you love heat, then feel free to use medium salsa.
  • Jalapeno.  Use 1 small jalapeno.  Remove the seeds but do not discard them.  I like to taste the dressing after I’ve made it and add additional seeds for more heat.  If you don’t have jalapenos on hand you can add a pinch of cayenne pepper.
  • Fresh Cilantro:  You can use the leaves and the stems because the stems contain a lot of flavor and are going to get blended anyway.
  • Garlic:  Fresh garlic is fantastic but you can substitute with ¼ teaspoon garlic powder.
  • Lime Juice. You can use fresh or bottled lime juice and use more or less to taste.
  • Olive Oil.  Use extra virgin olive oil for more flavor.
  • Milk.  You may need more or less milk to reach desired consistency.  You may use almond milk, soy milk, etc.
  • Seasonings.  We need seasonings to cut through the creaminess of the dressing:  ground cumin, smoked paprika, salt and pepper.  You can of course use more or less to suit your personal preference.
front view of a big bowl of the bests Southwest Salad recipe

How to Make Southwest Salad

  • Make southwest dressing. Add avocado, salsa, sour cream (or Greek yogurt) cilantro, garlic, lime, jalapeno and splash of smoked paprika and cumin to your blender and blend until smooth, scraping the sides down as needed.   You can add hot sauce if you like it spicier and milk if you like it thinner.   It tastes best chilled before serving but if you don’t have time, then it will still taste sensational as is.
  • Add salad ingredients to large bowl. Add romaine lettuce, corn, black beans, red onions, tomatoes, cheese, and pepitas to a large bowl and toss to combine.
  • Toss salad with dressing. Drizzle salad with desired amount of dressing or drizzle dressing over individual servings if not eating all of the salad immediately.
  • Garnish with tortilla strips. Top Southwest Salad or individual servings with to crunchy tortilla strips.

What CAN I PREPARE AHEAD OF TIME?

I love that you can prepare this Southwest ahead of time so the salad can come together in 60 seconds when it’s time to serve.

  • Chop Vegetables: You can chop your lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, bell peppers and grill your corn ahead of time. Store veggies in separate airtight containers in sealable bag so the moisture doesn’t’ wilt the lettuce.  I do not recommend storing your pre-cut veggies longer than a day because the beauty of this salad is its freshness.
  • Make Southwest Dressing: You can make the Southwest Salad Dressing and store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours in advance.  The lime juice will prevent the salad from discoloring too much, but it will darken slightly.  A change in color of color doesn’t mean it’s going bad; it simply means the sauce is oxidizing.
up close of pouring souwthest salad dressing over Southwest Salad

Southwest SALAD RECIPE VARIATIONS

This Southwest Salad is extremely customizable.  Here are a few recipe variations:

  • Add chicken:  Turn this Southwest Salad into Southwest Chicken Salad by adding easy Mexican chicken, crockpot Mexican chicken, chipotle chickenchili lime chicken, cilantro lime chicken.
  • Add shrimp.  My cilantro lime shrimp used in my burrito bowls would be superb in this salad and transform it into a meal.
  • Add beef.  You can add ground beef seasoned with taco seasoning or chopped carne asada steak or beef barbacoa.
  • Add pork. You can add carnitas, salsa verde pork or chipotle pork.
  • Add avocado.  I use avocado in the dressing so I haven’t included it in the Southwest Recipe but you can still add it to the salad if you wish.  Make sure you use ripe avocados but not overly ripe or they will turn to mush.  To tell if an avocado is ripe, squeeze it gently. A ripe avocado should yield slightly to pressure but not feel overly soft.  If your avocados ripen before you are ready to use them, they can be stored in the refrigerator which will dramatically slow down the ripening process.
  • Add mangos.  I love mangos with everything Southwest.  They offer a pop of fresh, juicy sweetness that cuts through the robust TexMex seasonings and creaminess of the Southwest Dressing. If you are intimidated by mangos, don’t be, just check out my How to Cut A Mango Post that teaches everything you could ever want to know about mangos.
  • Add bacon.  Because bacon makes everything better.  I recommend thick-cut bacon so its wonderfully meaty texture doesn’t get lost in the salad.  You will want to add the bacon to the Southwest Salad at the end with the tortilla chips.
  • Add rice. Pile the Southwest Salad on some brown rice or quinoa, Cilantro Lime Rice or Mexican Rice or add it directly to the salad. You can also create Southwest Burrito Bowl by layering rice, salad then your protein of choice.

HOW DO I SERVE SOUTHWEST SALAD?

There are three ways to serve this easy Southwest Salad:

  • If you don’t expect or want leftovers: add all of the salad ingredients to a large bowl except for tortilla chips and toss with desired amount of dressing. Add tortilla chips when ready to serve.
  • If you expect leftovers:  add all of the salad ingredients to a large bowl except the tortilla strips.  Let individuals dress their own salad plates with dressings and tortilla chips.
  • Create a taco salad bar: line up all of the ingredients in separate serving bowls and let guests assemble their own Southwest Salad.

WHAT to serve with SOUTHWEST SALAD?

I often am asked what to pair with this Southwest Salad recipe.  The shorter list would be what NOT to pair with it because it goes with practically all of my Mexican recipes.  Here is a summary of my favorite combinations but please do not limit yourselves to my list alone:

top view of Southwest Salad tossed with Southwest Dressing and garnished with tortilla chips

How to Make Southwest Chicken Salad

If you want to transform this Southwest Salad into a meal, then I suggest topping it with either my All Purpose Chili Lime Chicken or my Chipotle Chicken.  Dynamite combo.  You can prep the chicken ahead of time so it’s ready to throw on your salad at a seconds notice.

Looking for more Salad Recipes? 

Now prepare yourself for the combination of fresh, crunchy veggies, pepitas and tortilla strips, sprinkled with spicy, buttery pepper jack cheese all doused in creamy dressing packed with all your favorite Mexican flavors.  Prepare yourself for Southwest Pepper Jack Salad with the BEST Southwest Dressing!

Southwest-Salad-with-Creamy-Avocado-Salsa-Dressing9

WANT TO TRY THIS SOUTHWEST SALAD RECIPE?

PIN IT TO YOUR SALAD, MEXICAN, CHICKEN OR DINNER BOARD TO SAVE FOR LATER!

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Southwest Salad with Creamy Avocado Salsa Dressing

Southwest Salad is far more delicious than any restaurant salad at a fraction of the cost!  This Southwest Salad is bursting with black beans, red bell peppers, tomatoes, fresh sweet corn, pepitas, Pepper Jack cheese, and bathed in Creamy Avocado Salsa Dressing.  The dressing alone is worth making this Southwest Salad recipe!
Servings: 6 -8
Prep Time: 25 minutes

Ingredients

Southwest Salad

  • 1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
  • fresh corn kernels from 1 ear of sweet corn
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onions
  • 1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1/3 cup roasted and salted pepitas (may sub. sunflower seeds)
  • 1/2 cup grated pepper jack cheese, or more to taste
  • Tortilla Strips for Salads (I like Fresh Gourmet Santa Fe Style)

Creamy Avocado Salsa Dressing

  • 1 small avocado, peeled and sliced
  • 1 small jalapeno, seeded, deveined and roughly chopped (optional)
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro
  • 1/4 cup sour cream (may sub.plain Greek yogurt)
  • 1/4 cup salsa (medium for more of a kick)
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • juice from 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 tsp EACH salt, ground cumin
  • 1/8 tsp EACH pepper, smoked paprika
  • Hot sauce to taste (optional)

Instructions

  • Add all of the Creamy Avocado Salad Dressing ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth, scraping the sides down as needed. Add hot sauce and additional salt and pepper to taste. Add additional milk to thin to desired consistency if needed. Chilli in the refrigerator, time permitting.
  • Add salad ingredients to a large bowl except for the tortilla strips and toss to combine.
  • Toss salad with desired amount of dressing (there will probably be some left over) or drizzle dressing over individual servings if not eating all of the salad immediately.
  • Garnish salad with tortilla strips and freshly cracked salt and pepper.

Notes

*If using Greek Yogurt, you might need to add more sugar to taste

HOW TO CHAR CORN

Charred corn is optional but I love grilling corn because it results in deeply sweet, succulent, smoky corn, instead of just sweet corn.  If you don’t have time, don’t worry about it, if you do, you will LOVE it!

TO GRILL CORN ON THE COB:

  • Peel the corn
  • Remove all the silk
  • Lightly brush all over with olive oil
  • Season with salt and pepper on all sides
  • Grease and heat grill to high heat
  • Grill corn over direct heat for 10-12 minutes, turning until lightly charred on all sides, closing the lid in between rotations.

TO CHAR CORN IN A SKILLET:

If you don’t have corn on the cob or have access to a grill, you can still char frozen, canned, or fresh corn in a cast iron skillet:
  • Heat one tablespoon olive oil in large cast iron skillet over high heat.
  • Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until corn starts to char, approximately 5 minutes (a few minutes longer if frozen)
  • Transfer kernels to a large bowl to cool so they don’t continue to cook.

Southwest SALAD RECIPE VARIATIONS

This Southwest Salad is extremely customizable.  Here are a few recipe variations:
  • Add chicken:  Turn this Southwest Salad into Southwest Chicken Salad by adding easy Mexican chicken, crockpot Mexican chicken, chipotle chickenchili lime chicken, cilantro lime chicken.
  • Add shrimp.  My cilantro lime shrimp used in my burrito bowls would be superb in this salad and transform it into a meal.
  • Add beef.  You can add ground beef seasoned with taco seasoning or chopped carne asada steak or beef barbacoa.
  • Add pork. You can add carnitas, salsa verde pork or chipotle pork.
  • Add avocado.  I use avocado in the dressing so I haven’t included it in the Southwest Recipe but you can still add it to the salad if you wish.  Make sure you use ripe avocados but not overly ripe or they will turn to mush.  To tell if an avocado is ripe, squeeze it gently. A ripe avocado should yield slightly to pressure but not feel overly soft.  If your avocados ripen before you are ready to use them, they can be stored in the refrigerator which will dramatically slow down the ripening process.
  • Add mangos.  I love mangos with everything Southwest.  They offer a pop of fresh, juicy sweetness that cuts through the robust TexMex seasonings and creaminess of the Southwest Dressing. If you are intimidated by mangos, don’t be, just check out my How to Cut A Mango Post that teaches everything you could ever want to know about mangos.
  • Add bacon.  Because bacon makes everything better.  I recommend thick-cut bacon so its wonderfully meaty texture doesn’t get lost in the salad.  You will want to add the bacon to the Southwest Salad at the end with the tortilla chips.
  • Add rice. Pile the Southwest Salad on some brown rice or quinoa, Cilantro Lime Rice or Mexican Rice or add it directly to the salad. You can also create Southwest Burrito Bowl by layering rice, salad then your protein of choice.

HOW DO I SERVE SOUTHWEST SALAD?

There are three ways to serve this easy Southwest Salad:
  • If you don’t expect or want leftovers: add all of the salad ingredients to a large bowl except for tortilla chips and toss with desired amount of dressing. Add tortilla chips when ready to serve.
  • If you expect leftovers:  add all of the salad ingredients to a large bowl except the tortilla strips.  Let individuals dress their own salad plates with dressings and tortilla chips.
  • Create a taco salad bar: line up all of the ingredients in separate serving bowls and let guests assemble their own Southwest Salad.

WHAT to serve with SOUTHWEST SALAD?

I often am asked what to pair with this Southwest Salad recipe.  The shorter list would be what NOT to pair with it because it goes with practically all of my Mexican recipes.  Here is a summary of my favorite combinations but please do not limit yourselves to my list alone:
 

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71 Comments

  1. Alegrizjr says

    I just cooked the salad the rice n the chicken n they’re absolutely delicious thank you

    • Jen says

      you are so welcome, so happy you enjoyed it! Thank you!

  2. Chris says

    Simply wonderful!!! I also made your chipotle chicken to go with it. Thanks for sharing such great recipes!!! 🙂

    • Jen says

      You are so welcome Chris, thanks so much for trying them and for commenting, I really appreciate it! I hope you find more recipes to love here!

  3. Christine says

    Hello! What do you recommend for a sugar substitute?

    • Jen says

      Hi Christine, you could try honey to taste 🙂

  4. Shayley says

    Hi Jen! I just wanted to tell you how much I have enjoyed cooking all of your delicious recipes! I have literally been cooking straight from your site since I found you almost 2 weeks ago. We tried this salad tonight for dinner & my husband & I both loved it! The chicken reminded me of Cafe Rio (my fav). Thanks for inspiring me in my cooking!

    • Jen says

      Thank you so much Shayley, I LOVE hearing that you are enjoying my recipes – and so many of them, seriously so cool! I am so happy you are having fun cooking! Thank you for taking time to comment!

  5. Elizabeth says

    Made this for dinner tonight and my husband and I both loved it! The flavors of the chili lime chicken (grilled) and the dressing were amazing, felt like we were at a restaurant. I usually don’t cook a lot of chicken because I don’t know how to prep it. Can’t wait to try more of your recipes!

    • Jen says

      Awesome Elizabeth! I am thrilled you both loved this salad and especially happy that it turned out so well even though you don’t usually cook chicken! Now that you have conquered this recipe (which has a lot of ingredients!) you are ready for anything! I hope you have fun exploring my site and trying more recipes!

  6. Sam says

    This recipe is absolutely delicious! An acquaintance made this recipe for a dinner party some time ago, and I want to make it myself, but I have one question. What would you say is the yield in cups of this salad? Or how much is a single serving? I’m wondering how much I should expect to get out of this recipe relative to how much I ate of it at that dinner party, so I know whether to half or double it.

    • Jen says

      Hi Sam! I am so happy you loved this salad! I am estimating here that the salad is about 12-13 cups total if your romaine lettuce yields 6-7 cups. Hope that helps!

  7. Heather says

    Made this tonight, so yummy! Tons of flavor! Bought the pepitas and now looking at the pictures as I write this review I realize that I forgot to add them to my salad…ugh!

    • Jen says

      So happy you loved this salad Heather, thank you! Sounds like you are going to have to make it again soon so you can use those pepitas! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  8. Dhvani says

    I love this salad but it’s a lot of ingredients. Anyway to meal prep this in advance? Like how should I separate the ingredients so it doesn’t get soggy? And can u make the dressing the night before so it doesn’t brown due to the avocado?

    • Jen says

      You can definitely prep the salad ingredients the night before. You could combine the lettuce, corn and peppers but I would keep everything else separate. The dressing can be made the night before as well – it won’t be as vibrant but the lime juice will the keep it from browning very much.

  9. Amy says

    This salad and dressing is SO good. It’s the first online recipe I’ve made that I loved enough to actually leave a review! My husband referred to it as “[expletive] AWESOME!” And I have to say I agree. I topped it with the chili lime chicken. The flavors are amazing (the dressing omg), the prep is really pretty simple, and it’s light but filling. This is going to become a household staple, no question. Thank you for sharing it!

    • Jen says

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment Amy, I’m thrilled both you and your husband loved this Southwest Salad so much and its going to be a new staple! I love our addition of chili lime chicken!

  10. Tiera says

    Can I use mayo only as an alternative to the milk and sour cream? I’m looking for a way to make this work for a diary free gluten free friend.

    • Jen says

      Absolutely! I would use mayo in place of the sour cream then just add water as needed to thin.

    • Mict says

      Would be much better if you added how much of each ingredient

      • Jen says

        All of the measurements are listed in the recipe.

  11. Rose White says

    Wow love these salads. Im on Weight Watchers always looking for recipes so it doesn’t very boring. Thank you

    • Jen says

      You’re so welcome, I’m so happy you’re enjoying them!

  12. Carrie says

    Made this tonight for dinner. Had to do a couple of substitutions based on what I had on hand but it was wonderful. The dressing was outstanding. I grilled some basil lemon chicken which we chopped and threw on top. Perfect dinner for a hot evening.

    • Jen says

      Thanks so much Carrie! I’m so pleased you loved the Southwest Salad and your addition of lemon basil chicken sounds amazing!

  13. Lisa says

    I am making this tonight, the warm weather is supposed to go away this week and then it will be soup season. This is perfect for a warm evening! Thank you!

    • Jen says

      You’re so welcome Lisa, I hope you love it as much as us!

  14. Gabby Tim says

    I’ve made this four times and it’s always a hit. Thank you!

    • Jen says

      I love hearing that, thank you so much Gabby!

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