Southwest chicken salad made with a creamy cilantro lime dressing and topped with a flavorful mix of corn, zucchini, pinto beans, and juicy tomatoes. A hearty entree salad perfect for lunch or dinner.
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This Southwest chicken salad combines the exciting flavors of Native American, Spanish, and Mexican cuisine. To complement the tangy cilantro-lime dressing I use crisp romaine lettuce as it holds its texture well. You can make the dressing as mild or spicy as you like. Similar to my chicken taco salad, I add juicy slices of lean protein to each serving.
The salad is topped with a traditional mix of corn, beans, and squash. Plus, a variety of colorful ingredients for a healthy and hearty lunch or dinner entree. You can make the dressing and chicken in advance for a quick meal prep option, then assemble!
For a lean protein option, use boneless skinless chicken breast. Purchase 8-ounce pieces as they will cook quickly and won’t dry out too fast. I recommend flattening the chicken to about ½-inch thick for even cooking. Alternatively, slice them in half into cutlets. I keep it simple by seasoning the meat with salt and pepper.
To add more spices, sprinkle cumin, coriander, spicy chili powder, or smoked paprika. I like to use my taco seasoning mix as a quick dry rub. If you have extra time, you can soak the pieces in a citrusy marinade for 30 minutes. I recommend swapping lemon juice and parsley for cilantro lime seasonings. For a fast and easy option, use shredded or chopped rotisserie chicken.
Cook the chicken
The quickest option is to cook the chicken on the stovetop over medium heat with olive oil using a grill pan, nonstick, stainless steel pan, or cast-iron skillet. Alternatively, grilling chicken adds a smoky flavor to the meat. No matter your chosen method, lightly press the pieces into the greased pan or grill grates. This process creates maximum contact for a golden-brown crust on the hot surface.
Flip the meat over once it’s about 50% cooked through, about 5 to 8 minutes per side. The thickest part of the chicken should reach between 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC). I rest the meat for at least 10 minutes before slicing or dicing—this allows for gentle carryover cooking and juicer bites.
Make the cilantro lime dressing
For a creamy dressing, use sour cream as the base. The rich dairy adds a luxurious consistency. Crema can also be used but will be runnier. Plain greek yogurt is a healthy protein and probiotic-packed option. Lime juice adds a fresh citrus taste and apple cider vinegar for a fermented tanginess balanced with some honey. Chopped cilantro adds a fresh herbaceous note.
Add minced jalapeno, chipotle, or ancho chili powder for a spicy southwest flavor. I like to add smoked paprika for extra charred flavor. Salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cumin add savory seasoning. The dressing will be thick, which can be easily adjusted with water or milk. If you make it in advance, the sour cream will firm up. Simply stir and add water as needed.
Choose refreshing and crisp lettuce with a sturdy structure. Romaine lettuce is my top choice, followed by iceberg. Slice the crunchy leaves into ½-inch wide strips, making them easy to grab with a fork. If you already have the barbecue fired up, try grilling the romaine for a charred taste. It’s delicious!
Try baby spinach or a spring mix if you prefer more tender greens. To evenly coat the pieces, toss them in about ¼ cup of dressing before serving. Save the remaining to serve on the side for extra flavor.
Add salad toppings
To infuse foods indigenous to the Southwest region of the United States, I add them as tasty toppings for the salad. The Native Americans grew staple crops called the three sisters, which encompass different types of corn, beans, and squash. For this recipe, I used yellow corn kernels and blue corn tortilla chips. Grilled corn would be a delicious addition! Pinto beans are creamy and most used in the cuisine. Black beans are a great nutritious substitute.
Summer squash like zucchini or yellow squash is chopped up and enjoyed raw in the salad. Pumpkin seeds are used in this region for sauces, but I like the crunch it adds when kept whole. Sliced red onion adds pungency, or try quick pickling for a sweet and tangy taste. Sliced avocado provides extra creaminiess, along with grated cheddar cheese. Sweet baby tomatoes add a burst of juiciness to the salad.
Serve this with
- Jalapeno cheddar cornbread
- Slow cooker red pork chili
- Instant-Pot chili
- Grilled corn salad
- Naan or Indian fry bread
Crispy lettuce, like romaine, is used to support the hearty toppings. Traditional toppings include beans like pinto or black beans, corn, and zucchini. Cheese like cheddar, queso fresco, or cotija is sprinkled on top. Add chopped green or red bell peppers or roasted poblano peppers for a more peppery taste. A spicy southwest dressing is paired with the salad ingredients.
The sauce is creamy and tangy, with a hint of heat. Common dressing ingredients include sour cream, lime juice, chopped cilantro, apple cider vinegar, honey, and spicy chili powder like ancho or chipotle. Savory seasonings like cumin, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, and garlic powder enhance the taste.
Yes, if you prefer dark meat, use boneless skinless chicken thighs for the salad. Make sure to remove any excess fat from the surface so the meal doesn’t taste greasy.
What is ancho chili?
Ancho chile is dried and ground poblano pepper. Poblanos are often used in Southwestern cuisine. The pepper is more mild compared to other hot chili peppers like chipotle. They have a smoky and slightly sweet taste which pairs well with the creamy salad dressing for a complex flavor but without being overly hot. It is a good substitute for chili powder blends which typically contain a mix of ancho, cascabel, or New Mexico chilis.
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Southwest Chicken Salad
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, 2 pieces
Cilantro Lime Dressing
- ½ cup sour cream, crema, or plain greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 4 teaspoons honey
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
- 1 teaspoon minced jalapeno
- ½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
- ½ teaspoon lime zest
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon chipotle chili, chili powder, or ancho chili
- ¼ teaspoon paprika , smoked or sweet
- 8 cups romaine lettuce, ½” thick slices
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 cup diced zucchini, ½” dice
- 1 medium avocado, sliced
- ¾ cup corn kernels, canned or grilled
- ¾ cup pinto beans, canned, rinsed and drained
- ½ cup cheddar cheese, or Monterey jack cheese
- ½ cup crushed purple corn tortilla chips
- ¼ cup sliced red onion, ⅛” thick
- ¼ cup pepitas
- Prepare the Chicken – Place one of the chicken pieces between two plastic sheets or in a large plastic bag. Flatten to an even thickness, about ½-inch thick. Repeat with the remaining piece.
- Season the Meat – In a small bowl, combine salt and black pepper. Evenly season both sides of the chicken breast with the mixture.
- Cook the Chicken – Heat a large skillet or grill pan over medium heat. Add olive oil, and heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking. Add the chicken and press down into the pan for maximum contact. Cook until golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Flip and cook until the internal temperature reaches 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC), about 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a clean plate to rest for 10 minutes.
- Slice the Chicken – Slice the meat against the grain. If desired, chop into cubes. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Make the Dressing – In a medium bowl, combine sour cream, lime juice, honey, cilantro, apple cider vinegar, lime zest, jalapeno, cumin, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, chipotle chili powder, and paprika—season to taste. For a thinner dressing, whisk in water in 1 teaspoon increments until desired consistency is reached.
- Dress the Salad – Add romaine lettuce to a large bowl and ¼ cup of dressing. Gently toss to combine.
- To Serve – Top the lettuce with tomatoes, zucchini, avocado, corn, beans, cheese, chips, red onion, and pepitas. Serve with remaining dressing on the side.
- Dressing Yield: About ¾ cups
- Storing: The undressed salad and dressing can be covered and stored separately in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- Grilled Chicken: Preheat grill over medium-high heat between 375 to 400ºF (191 to 204ºC). Clean and grease grates with the oil. Keep one burner off for indirect heat cooking. Place chicken on the direct heat side of the grill and close the lid. Cook each side for about 5 to 8 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC). If browning too quickly, move the chicken to the indirect heat side of the grill to complete.
- Using Pre-Cooked Chicken: 2 ½ cups of shredded, sliced, or cubed chicken.
- For a Spicier Dressing: Gradually increase the amount of chipotle, chili or ancho powder. Add cayenne pepper for a hotter taste. Increase the amount of minced jalapeno.
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