From the start of your meal (hello chips and salsa!), it can be very easy to over- indulge at a Mexican restaurant. Although a lot of Mexican dishes contain nutrient-rich ingredients like black beans, vegetables, lean protein and fresh avocado, it can be tough to avoid high calorie and high carb menu items.
For example, a chicken burrito accompanied with chips, guacamole and a margarita could be upwards of 2,000 calories, 200 grams of carbs and 2,000-plus mg sodium in one. Yikes!
However, prepared with the right information, navigating your healthy Mexican cuisine journey can be quite simple. The below guide, as featured in my recent article on NOLA.com, features my top picks, worst bets, key words to indicate healthier options on menus, and strategic swaps if you're watching calories, carbs and/or sodium.
TOP 3 PICKS
My top three for both taste and nutrition:
- Ceviche. Fresh seafood marinated in citrus juices, just ask for vegetables in place of chips. Superior Grill and The Velvet Cactus each offer an Eat Fit NOLA-style ceviche.
- Tacos. Opt for corn tortillas for fewer carbs and calories than wheat, or even better, go with lettuce-wrapped tacos.
- Grilled platter or skewers. Savor the spices and flavors of Mexican cuisine, but keep it lean with grilled fish, chicken or lean steak. Request double grilled vegetables in place of rice and refried beans.
Where Nutritious Meets Delicious
When scanning the menu, here are certain items to look for that typically indicate more healthful options:
Black beans, pinto beans and grilled vegetables. Loaded with fiber and nutrients, these are the better bets when it comes to side items, generally a better option than refried beans, and certainly better than white rice. For those watching their sodium intake, opt for grilled vegetables. They are usually made to order, and so can be modified to be lower in salt, unlike other dishes that are prepared in large batches.
Ceviche. The raw seafood cured with citrus juices is rich in protein and low in carbs, and typically one of the lower-calorie appetizers on the menu.
Cucumber "chips." Every ounce of corn chips (about seven chips) has about 140 calories, so to keep things in check nutritionally, ask for cucumber chips - simply raw cucumber slices - to scoop your salsa or guacamole.
Fajitas, deconstructed. Assemble your own. Keep the chicken, shrimp or lean beef with all of the veggies, and, perhaps the beans, depending on how they're prepared. Use guacamole as a 'sauce' instead of sour cream. Limit the tortillas, rice and refried beans to minimize the calorie-dense ingredients that aren't as nutrient-rich.
Fresh fish. Many authentic Mexican restaurants offer this as a clean and simple dish -- just grilled or sauteed with olive oil, garlic, lime and peppers.
Guacamole. It's loaded with good-for-us fats, but an order of guacamole (without chips) can pack in 600-plus calories, so split it with a friend if you're keeping things on the lighter side. And the sodium can easily get as high as 1,200 mg, so for at least tableside guacamole, you can request less or no salt added. And as always, you won't go wrong by requesting vegetables or cucumber "chips" in place of tortilla chips for dipping.
Grilled platter. Keep it lean with seafood, chicken, filet or flank steak, with sides of grilled vegetables and black beans, or double vegetables for even fewer calories.
Pico de gallo and salsa. Rich in antioxidants with a mere 5 calories per spoonful, most varieties of salsa are pretty close to "calorie-free." Sodium can still be an issue, however, with 200-plus mg sodium in every two-tablespoon serving.
Taco salad, deconstructed. The approach is similar to the deconstructed fajitas: Skip the taco shell, go easy on the cheese and sour cream, and you'll wind up with a simple(r) salad with grilled chicken, grilled steak, or shredded pork, hopefully topped with other goodies like sliced avocado and grilled veggies. Opt for pico de gallo or salsa instead of salad dressing, and your "taco salad" can be a very reasonable 300 to 600 calories.
Tacos. Most restaurant-style tacos range from 170 to 250 calories each, with 15 to 30 grams of carbs per taco. They're often served three to an order, so my recommendation for clients is generally to have one taco as-served, and just the inside protein-veggie-herb goodness from the other two tacos. And some restaurants make it easy to skip the tortillas altogether, offering slimmed-down tacos wrapped with lettuce instead.
THIS OR THAT
3 swaps to make if you're watching your calories, carbs and sodium.
Tortillas: Wheat vs. Corn
Corn tortillas. If you're given the option of corn or flour tortillas, opt for corn for about one-third the carbs and calories. They're also crazy-low in sodium, with about 10 mg sodium for two corn tortillas, compared to about 600 mg sodium for two flour tortillas. Side note: most "wheat" tortillas at restaurants aren't really 100 percent whole wheat. They're a blend of enriched wheat (white) flour and whole wheat flour.
Burritos: Wraps vs. Bowls.
Bowls. Burrito bowls are trendy, and they also make it super easy to pile in loads of veggies and goodness. And since the burrito wrap alone can cram in 300-plus calories, opting for a burrito bowl can be an instant calorie saver.
Still, starchy calories can still quickly fill that bowl, so our best bet is to nix the rice (white or brown), and get carbs from fiber-packed beans instead. Pile in as many vegetables as possible, and opt for a lean source of protein -- chicken, shrimp or tofu -- and add a dose of healthful fats with avocado or guacamole.
Cocktails: Margarita vs. Mojito
Mojito. Unless you find a place with good no-sugar-added Margaritas (like the Eat Fit Margaritas at Superior Grill), mojitos are your better bet.
Regular mojitos are typically made with two teaspoons of sugar, which translates to about 10 grams of sugar, but it's still far better than the 40-plus grams of sugar found in many Margaritas. Even better, ask for mojitos to be made with muddled fruit in place of sugar - or ask if they can use a no-sugar plant-based sweetener like Truvia in place of sugar.