Southwest Chicken Salad

5 from 10 votes
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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.

A colorful and delicious southwest chicken salad in a big bowl.

Recipe Science

  • Grilling the chicken imparts a smoky flavor and creates caramelized surfaces, enhancing the overall taste profile.
  • The acidity in the lime dressing helps break down the greens slightly, making them tender and allowing them to absorb the dressing’s flavors better.
  • Incorporating black beans and corn adds texture and balances the dish’s macronutrients, offering a mix of proteins, fibers, and carbohydrates.

Why It Works

This Southwest chicken salad recipe combines the exciting flavors of Native American, Spanish, and Mexican cuisine. Crisp romaine lettuce complements the tangy cilantro-lime dressing well, and you can make the dressing as mild or spicy as you like. Like 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!

Ingredients You’ll Need

Ingredients portioned out on a board with the component names called out.
  • Chicken: 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.
  • Dressing: A creamy combination of sour cream, lime juice and zest, honey, cilantro, jalapeno, apple cider vinegar, cumin, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, chipotle chili powder, and smoked paprika.
  • Lettuce: Choose a type of lettuce with a sturdy structure. Romaine 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 grilled romaine for a charred taste. It’s delicious! 
  • Toppings: Vegetables like cherry tomatoes, zucchini, sliced avocado, corn, red onions, and pinto beans. Savory, shredded cheddar cheese, crunchy tortillas, chips, and pepitas.

See the recipe card below for all ingredients and measurements (US and metric).

Ingredient Substitutions

This southwestern chicken salad is easy to customize! Try these tasty options;

  • Chicken: Use shredded or chopped roasted chicken for a fast and easy option.
  • Seasoning: To add more southwestern flavors to the chicken, sprinkle cumin, coriander, spicy chili powder, or smoked paprika. I like to use my taco seasoning mix as a quick dry rub. You can soak the pieces in a citrusy chicken marinade for 30 minutes if you have extra time. I recommend swapping lemon juice and parsley for cilantro lime seasonings.
  • Lettuce: Try baby spinach or a spring mix if you prefer more tender greens. Cut up iceberg lettuce for a crispness and texture similar to romaine.
  • Toppings: Black beans are a great nutritious substitute for pinto. A spicy pepperjack cheese. Grilled corn would be a delicious addition! Instead of zucchini, add diced cucumber.
  • Dressing: A homemade ranch dressing is a great swap. Sprinkle in some smoked paprika, chili powder, and lime juice to add more flavor.

How to Make Southwest Chicken Salad

Step 1: Prepare the Chicken

I recommend flattening the chicken to about ½-inch thick for even cooking. Alternatively, slice it in half into cutlets. I keep it simple by seasoning the meat with salt and pepper. I like mixing them in a small bowl and then applying them so the salt and pepper are evenly coated on the chicken.

Chicken breast with char marks being cooked and flipped over in a grill pan.

Step 2: Cook the Chicken

The quickest option is to cook chicken on the stove over medium heat with olive oil using a grill pan, nonstick, stainless steel pan, or cast-iron skillet. Alternatively, grilled 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. 

Tips for Perfect Execution: 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).

Step 3: Rest and Slice the Chicken

I rest the meat for at least 10 minutes before slicing or dicing—this allows for gentle carryover cooking and juicer bites.

Bowl of cilantro lime salad dressing ingredients about to be whisked together.
Homemade cilantro lime dressing in a bowl.

Step 4: Make the Cilantro Lime Dressing

For a creamy dressing, use sour cream as the base. Lime juice adds a fresh citrus taste, and apple cider vinegar provides 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.

Experimentation Encouraged: Sour cream adds a luxurious consistency. Crema can also be used but will be runnier. Plain Greek yogurt is a healthy protein and probiotic-packed option. 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.

Romaine lettuce leaves in a bowl with cilantro lime salad dressing on top.

Step 5: Dress the Salad

To evenly coat the lettuce pieces, toss them in about ¼ cup of dressing before serving. Save the remaining to serve on the side for extra flavor.

Close up of grilled and sliced chicken breast placed on top of several colorful salad ingredients.

Step 6: Add Salad Toppings and Serve

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, encompassing different corn, beans, and squash types. I used yellow corn kernels and blue corn tortilla chips for this recipe. Pinto beans are creamy and are the most used in the cuisine.

Summer squash, such as zucchini or yellow squash, is chopped up and enjoyed raw in the salad. Roasted pumpkin seeds are used in this region for sauces, but I like the crunch they add when kept whole. Sliced red onion adds spice, or try pickled red onions for a sweet and tangy taste. Sliced avocado provides extra creaminess, along with grated cheddar cheese. Sweet baby tomatoes add a burst of juiciness to the salad. Add the juicy chicken on top, and you’re ready to dig in!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Southwest salad made of?

Crispy lettuce, like romaine, supports the hearty toppings. Traditional toppings include 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 pairs with the salad ingredients.

What does Southwest dressing taste like?

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.

Can I use dark meat?

Yes, if you prefer dark meat, use boneless, skinless chicken thighs for the salad. Remove 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 milder compared to other hot chili peppers like Chipotle. They have a smoky and slightly sweet taste that pairs well with the creamy salad dressing for a complex flavor 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.

More Chicken Salads

If you tried this Southwest Chicken Salad recipe, please leave a 🌟 star rating and let me know how it went in the 📝 comments below!

Southwest Chicken Salad

Southwest chicken salad made with a creamy cilantro lime dressing and topped with colorful vegetables and crunchy tortilla chips.
5 from 10 votes
Prep Time25 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time40 minutes
Servings 4 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

Chicken

  • 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

Salad

  • 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 shredded cheddar cheese, or Monterey jack cheese
  • ½ cup crushed purple corn tortilla chips
  • ¼ cup sliced red onion, ⅛” thick
  • ¼ cup pepitas

Instructions 

  • Prepare the Chicken – Place one of the chicken pieces between two plastic sheets or in a large plastic bag. Use a meat tenderizer to flatten to an even thickness, about ½-inch thick. Repeat with the remaining piece. 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) on a meat thermometer, about 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a clean plate to rest for 10 minutes.
  • Slice the Chicken – After resting, 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, pepitas, and chicken. Serve with the remaining dressing on the side.

Recipe Video

YouTube video

Notes

  • 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 the 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.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 4 servings
Calories 698kcal (35%)Carbohydrates 63g (21%)Protein 42g (84%)Fat 31g (48%)Saturated Fat 9g (45%)Polyunsaturated Fat 6gMonounsaturated Fat 12gTrans Fat 0.02gCholesterol 104mg (35%)Sodium 765mg (32%)Potassium 1726mg (49%)Fiber 14g (56%)Sugar 13g (14%)Vitamin A 9167IU (183%)Vitamin C 34mg (41%)Calcium 233mg (23%)Iron 5mg (28%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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  1. Sherrie says

    We made the Southwest Chicken Salad and it was delicious! Thank you for all your recipes, as I’ve made several of them and love your extended notes on how to prepare the dishes! You’re the best!