Potato salad is ubiquitous. Anytime you find yourself at an outdoor event, there always seem to be a few of those plastic deli tubs lining the picnic tables along with the coleslaw and baked beans. But here’s the thing: In the time I spent working in grocery store delis, most of my coworkers agreed that the various incarnations of our potato salads were, more or less, disgusting.
Maybe this is the opinion that naturally forms after you’re forced to scoop endless tubs of the stuff for folks who are clearly heading to the lake, while you remain stuck behind the counter wearing an apron and hair net.
My memories of this particular side dish are generally on the more positive side. Though I vastly prefer the homemade versions (which are as flexible and easy as they are delicious), those little containers of mustard, mayo, and taters hold a certain accessible comfort.
So, I decided to put the question to the test: Out of the five types of potato salad sold at my local grocery store deli, which one is the best? Your regional offerings may vary, but these seem to be fairly standard offerings (with one notable exception). The names may be a little different, but the palette of ingredients and flavors are largely the same.
#5: American Potato Salad
Nope, nope, nope. Though arguably the most visually appealing of the group, this cream-colored mess is a sad disappointment. I like the idea of using sliced red potatoes, and the eggy look of its dressing set my hopes sky-high. But the underdone potatoes and strange oiliness yield a mix of crunchy, greasy textures. There’s not a lot of favor here. Only slime.
#4: Classic Yellow Potato Salad
If you’ve ever been to an outdoor social function, you probably know what this tastes like. There’s a coolness and comfort here, with its crunch of celery and the muted mustard flavor coating potatoes that are still a little toothy. I won’t go so far as to say this is pleasant, but it’s largely inoffensive as far as empty calories go. It’s a classic for a reason, I suppose.
#3: Picnic Potato Salad
When I worked behind the glass case, both Picnic and Classic potato salad were generally the top choices. The crowd who preferred a mustard flavor would go with the #4 pick, while fans of mayo went with the Picnic. And while I love mustard, I think I’m actually with the mayo crowd on this one. The addition of celery seeds is a nice boost, and the carrots do the whole thing a favor. But still, there’s a muddy tang here that I’m not sure my palate is comfortable with. A good option, tiptoeing closer to what you’d get from something homemade.
#2: German Potato Salad
Is this popular outside of the Midwest? I don’t recall seeing German Potato Salad in places like New Mexico and Tennessee. But when paired with the brats and kraut of Up Nort’, this feels like a natural combo. It uses the same sliced potatoes as the American variety, but amps up the flavor with a tangy, sweet vinegar-style dressing. It leaves the palate tasting rather fresh, and pairs wonderfully with the smoky flavor of whatever’s coming off the grill. There are even tiny chunks of a bacon-like substance, along with some bright color from the potato skins and green onions.
#1: Steakhouse Potato Salad
I was pretty sure this was going to be the winner, even as I watched the (very patient) deli attendant scoop this into the container. Shredded cheddar, bacon bits, and a thick, sour-cream-looking binder? Sounds exactly as its name implies. Also, I happen to know that the cheese and bacon come in separate packages from the salad itself, so they retain their individual textures a little better while sitting in the case. For all intents and purposes, this tastes like a smashed-up baked potato from Chili’s. It won’t rock your world, but it’ll at least have you humming a tune.
If you find yourself charged with bringing a side to your next social gathering, most of the potato salads listed above should provide an acceptable, if unmemorable, experience. Is it enough to convince a haggard deli worker to shell out their cash for the same stuff they sell every day? Probably not. But with an average price around $4 per pound, the appetite for these summer mainstays won’t be dulled anytime soon.