My fondness for Taco Bell goes deep. There are times when the hunger for ersatz Tex-Mex will not be silenced. This craving dates back to college days in the late 1970s, when the closest restaurant to the student newspaper was a Taco Bell. The staff had a love-hate relationship with the chain.
“I’m going to Taco Death to pick up dinner. Does anyone want anything?” someone would shout as the evening deadlines approached.
Still a couple of bean burritos — vegetarian before its time, I guess — were filling and less than a dollar. For students, it was convenient and cheap — and in its own guilty pleasure way, kind of good.
Taco Bell hasn’t said much about the details for the new vegetarian menu. The chain’s website has a placeholder for vegetarian offerings consisting of what’s available now. And it’s relatively easy to assemble a vegetarian meal from what is already on the menu.
Some years back, Taco Bell promoted a series of “fresco” menu items that were intended to be healthier than the normal fare. Even though the fresco promotion is over, there are still calorie-conscious options that are under 350 calories and under 10 grams of fat each. Calorie-conscious is the key word there, because I wouldn’t call them exactly healthy.
The 150-calorie chicken soft taco “fresco style” gets 1/3 of its calories from fat and has 430 mg of sodium, which is a lot. The Centers for Disease Control urges American adults to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. That is supposed to improve, too; the company also announced that it would reduce sodium by 25 percent by 2025.
So here’s hoping the chain is successful with adding more vegetables and reducing sodium, because sometimes the bell just rings. When that happens, I’ve gotta go get lunch. And don’t get me started on the guiltiest pleasure of all, the bacon breakfast crunchwrap.
My husband has a great rule of thumb: When surveying the menu at an unfamiliar restaurant, ask yourself: “Do I believe this restaurant can really pull off this dish competently?”
Here’s the scenario. We are at a restaurant that, say, has TV screens playing sports, the kind men like to watch. The tables are bare. The napkins are rolled around the silverware and of an easy-care synthetic cloth. Somewhere on the menu is a “bacon ranch,” a “honey chipotle” or “chili-lime” something-or-other. America’s favorite flavor cliches reign supreme.
Which begs the question: Can the kitchen staff can actually pull off a perfectly cooked fillet of beef with a green peppercorn sauce?
At times like these, hubby’s philosophy is to get the hamburger. It’s safe.
The menu at Cinebistro Brookhaven, for example, comes to mind. It has a Korean cauliflower with a pineapple kimchi. It has a chicken with a spicy quince paste and guava sauce.
Kimchi? Guava sauce? Korean? Seriously?
On a recent visit, it seemed time for another burger. But both hubby and I would be rounder than we are now if we always went with the burger route. This time we had salads.
Hubby took the biggest risk by ordering the sesame seared tuna salad. This is not a restaurant at which the server asks how you’d like the tuna cooked. It came “perfectly adequate,” hubby says. High praise indeed.
I played it safer and ordered a kale salad with chicken breast. The salad came with almond slivers, dried cherries, sliced radish, pickled red onion and a kind of sweet pecorino vinaigrette. The chicken was obviously precooked and a bit dry. And pecorino vinaigrette? Huh? Wha? Where?
And not in a good way. A kale-and-broccolini dish is trendy. Putting one on Chick-fil-A’s menu is kind of like Nicki Minaj subbing for Hillary Clinton at an Iowa campaign appearance. To add insult, the Superfood Salad swept off the menu that Southern staple, coleslaw. It seemed like a blue-state raid on the beloved Atlanta-based chain, especially suspicious given Chick-fil-A’s designs on New York City.
For comparison, the large has almost half the sugar you’d find in a 12-ounce can of soda pop. (Admittedly, the new salad has less sugar than the Chick-fil-A coleslaw, which packed 26 grams of sugar into 580 calories.)
Let’s see how long it takes for the coleslaw to return to the menu. Maybe The South will rise again.
For many Weight Watchers, a turkey sandwich is the gold standard. A basic version counts as two slices of bread (5 Smart Points) and 4 ounces of deli turkey (2 Smart Points). Add in some lettuce, tomato or other vegetables and you have a pretty satisfying meal. Ordering a turkey sandwich at lunch winds up consuming 7 points from my daily allowance of 34. Plenty left over for dinner and breakfast.
But in the hands of some restaurant chefs, the humble turkey sandwich becomes a minefield. Consider these turkey sandwiches:
It’s not that chain restaurants are out to get us. Really. It’s just that they’re out to get everyone else (as customers) and leave us to manage on our own. Weight Watchers has done a great job of pulling together information on chain restaurants in its Menu Master Eating Out Guide.
The book is very complete, offering SmartPoints numbers for most chains and some non-chain but common menu items. A 3-by-4-inch piece of eggplant parmesan is 16 points, according to the book. (For non Weight Watchers members, this is the number you need for comparison. The Restaurant Dieter gets 34 points to spend on food daily, with most vegetables and fruits at zero.)
Weight Watchers’ relentlessly upbeat tone even extends to chain restaurants. “You’ll find a restaurant here an enjoy eating out. Menu Master will help make it a pleasure.” Uh-huh. Sure. How about some of these winners:
Auntie Annie’s: What carb addict hasn’t strolled past those glistening, nutritionally vapid pretzels and had a craving? But the price is steep. A cinnamon sugar soft pretzel is 19 points even before 3 for the light cream dip or 7 for the caramel dip. Run away!
Bruegger’s: Where a jalapeño cheddar bagel can cost you 13 points, nearly half of what you get for the entire day. Or a turkey sandwich — usually a good choice, in this case Harvest Turkey on Ciabatta, for 21 points. (A hamburger at Five Guys, which is a darn good old-fashioned burger, is only 24 SmartPoints.)
Chili’s: I guess we have to pass on the Bacon Ranch Steak Quesadilla at 63 points. That is not a typo.
Cinnabon: Why even bother to know the SmartPoints, when hardly anything on the menu is below 15 and ranges up to 46.
IHOP: If breakfast starts with an order of Cinnamon Swirl Brioche French Toast and Sausage at 47 point, why not just head to bed and start over tomorrow? Or: just see Cinnabon, above.
Jamba Juice: Didn’t smoothies start as healthful alternatives? Not here. Something that sounds as innocuous as a Banana Berry Smoothie is 32 points.
KFC: Just be aware that the Chicken Pot Pie (at 32 SmartPoints) makes an extra crispy fried chicken breast at 13 look like a bargain.
Red Lobster: Which has Cajun Chicken Linguine Alfredo on the children’s menu with half a serving at 25 points.
The Restaurant Dieter tends to be hard on the Darden Restaurant Group, and rightly so. The chain’s casual theme dinner houses push out a lot of incredibly unhealthy food, despite a few good efforts such as Season’s 52 and the Lighthouse menu at Red Lobster.
So he was interested in a recent article from Smart Money interviewing Darden CEO Clarence Otis Jr. about the chain’s recent efforts to tinker with the Olive Garden menu. This included a gorgonzola and pear ravioli with shrimp that apparently bombed.
No tears will be shed at The Restaurant Dieter blog. The article notes that Olive Garden serves 9 million of those all-you-can eat, nutritionally vapid, white bread, fat soaked bread sticks a week?
Even for a seasoned dieter, it’s hard to pass up a piece of good chocolate. If it’s high quality, sometimes one nice bite is enough to satisfy. It should be easy, however, to pass by the gross stuff spilling over the edge of the chocolate fountain. I don’t care if the dipping items do include fresh fruit.
I’ve never liked them. Instead of a wonderful dessert that leaves you feeling satisfied, there’s this giant tower of mysterious liquid surrounded by skewers and platters of fruit, cakes and cookies. After awhile, the whole station is spattered with chocolate. It’s not appetizing in the least.
Plus, I’ve always suspected that it isn’t exactly high-quality chocolate. To get the chocolate to flow so smoothly and not gum up the fountain, it’s clearly been thinned. Water would dilute the taste, so the likely culprit is fat. One recipe found online calls for adding three-quarters of a cup of oil to two bags of chocolate chips. Another website www.chocolatefountains.com, explains that a higher concentration of cocoa butter makes the chocolate flow easily.
So now are you tempted to visit Golden Corral and dip that fruit into a fat bath? I thought not.
The Restaurant Dieter was harsh on Darden Restaurant Group and Michelle Obama recently. The chain announced some pretty modest efforts to make its menus healthier, but from the purple prose, you’d have thought Darden conquered obesity.
Now comes the news that the chain — which operates Olive Garden, Red Lobster and others — is suffering financially. One of the reasons cited is commodity costs. Here’s hoping it gives the chain incentive to rein in some of the enormous and calorie-laden portions it serves.
In the restaurant biz — particularly chains — it’s the Holy Trinity: Fat, salt and sugar. Creating new dishes that hits all three of those compass points means satisfied customers.
It also means fat ones. Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has written about how the industry test kitchens are all about maximizing flavor via those three ingredients.
One chain where this seems near-gospel is Applebee’s. On a restaurant industry website, the chain was touting a new dessert.
It’s a cinnamon apple turnover that is “a miniature apple pie with cinnamon flavored apple slices hidden inside a flaky pastry crust.The dessert is topped with a honey cream cheese sauce and is served with a slice of vanilla ice cream.”
Salt, fat, sugar.
I couldn’t find the new dessert listed on Applebee’s own website, but another new menu innovation certainly makes the point:
“Stacked, stuffed and topped: The entrees you love, packed with even more flavor.”
From this, we get the Chicken Parmesan stack, which is
“Country-fried chicken stuffed with Italian cheeses, smothered in our spicy marinara and served atop a bed of fettuccine with roasted garlic Alfredo, onions and peppers. Topped with parsley and shredded Parmesan cheese. Served with toasted garlic bread.”