By The Restaurant Dieter

Tag: Mexican

Taco Bell to test vegetarian menu

Taco Bell is planning to offer a more extensive vegetarian menu in 2019, the company recently announced. Count me as more than casually interested.

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.

The food was a bargain for poor students.

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.

Review: Assembling your own salad at Atlanta’s Mi Cocina is smart indeed

When the subject is eating healthy, a Mexican chain restaurant seems an unlikely choice. But this Weight Watcher passed by two other restaurants to eat at Mi Cocina in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood.

Two reasons:

  1. The menu offers a perfectly dieter-friendly ceviche that is spicy, fresh and quite filling.
  2. The Mexican restaurant ubiquitous basket of tortilla chips is not salted, making it possible to eat just six and no more. A salty meal, with its addictive properties, can trigger a binge day that doesn’t end.

The lettuce

The lettuce

The ceviche is full of healthy ingredients

The ceviche is full of healthy ingredients

Mi Cocina appears to be a small chain based in Texas, with restaurants in Dallas and Houston. The menu is pretty typical: tacos, enchiladas, some salads, guacamole, fajitas and nachos. Usually at a Mexican restaurant, I order fajitas. I request that the cook pluck them from whatever oily marinade they are in, rinse them under the sink and grill them dry. With some pico de gallo, guacamole and corn tortillas, it’s a reasonable choice.

Mi Cocina’s ceviche is a smaller portion than it used to be, but it is still a nice mix of shrimp, jicama, mango, avocado and red onion in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. The restaurant does not publish nutritional information, but My Fitness Pal estimates it at 109 calories, 4 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein. That comes to 3 Weight Watchers SmartPoints.

The ceviche great on its own, but today I ordered a salad — blue cheese dressing on the side, no bacon and no crisp friend onions. The server was so stunned, he stammered: “Without those things, there really isn’t anything to the salad but the lettuce.” Perfect.

When it arrived, I dumped the ceviche over the lettuce, added about a tablespoon of the dressing and mixed it all up. “That’s pretty smart,” he said.

Yes, it was. So smart I had six of those unsalted chips.

Tortilla chips come unsalted

Tortilla chips come unsalted




Review: El Pollo Loco, Atlanta

It’s so easy to catch a fast food restaurant at the worst possible moment. The floor has a spill. Several of the tables are littered with trays and discarded food. The ice tea dispenser is empty. They run out of the item you order — after you pay the tab. They’re understaffed, but the folks behind the counter seem to be re-enacting “Night of the Living Dead.” A line is forming, no food comes up from the kitchen promptly and the manager, shirt partially untucked, is fiddling with the screen as if launching the last space shuttle.

Welcome to El Pollo Loco, a restaurant chain that is at least trying to make a difference when it comes to eating out healthy. Unfortunately, it  wasn’t just the chicken that was crazy; this patron was as well.
The El Pollo bowl
Lunch at the restaurant seemed like a good idea, given that El Pollo Loco was among the 19 chains last week that agreed to participate in a new child nutritional program touted by the National Restaurant Association. Called “Kids Live Well,” it aims to brand restaurants and items with a “seal of approval” that hope to make it easier to chose healthy food.
The visit, unfortunately, demonstrated the biggest problem with the program thus far: The 19 chains have the program at 15,000 locations nationwide. The El Pollo Loco I chose on Buford Highway in Atlanta is not among the participating restaurants. So the program’s happy logo was nowhere to be found.
But El Pollo got the nod anyway. It was 2p.m., and I was crazy hungry. Plus, the chain also participates in other programs with Healthy Dining, the consulting company involved in the NRA initiative. The nutritional information posted just inside the door featured many items with Healthy Dining’s approval.
I decided to get the chicken tortilla soup, minus the tortilla strips, and the Original Pollo Bowl. The soup clocked in at 140 calories, 5 grams of fat and 840 mg of sodium. Because it never arrived, I saved those calories easily enough.
The  Pollo Bowl was listed at 610 calories, 10 grams fat, and 1,750 mg of sodium (way too much), although I asked the kitchen to skip the cheese and rice in the bowl. That might have been a mistake because by the time I waited for my refund on the soup, the bowl was a lukewarm soupy mixture of beans, onions, pico de gallo and chicken chunks, garnished with chopped cilantro. Blah.
Barbecue black beans and steamed vegetables
Still feeling hungry, I went back for a side of fresh vegetables and the barbecue black beans. The former didn’t exactly have the texture of great veggies, just pulled from the steamer. But they did have some texture and, at a fast food restaurant, something of a miracle. It’s hard to knock them.
The black beans were 200 calories, 3 grams fat and 520 of sodium. The typically rich, earthly flavor of black beans was buried beneath a blanket of sickly sweet barbecue sauce. It seemed more like the kind of sugary baked beans one brings to the church picnic. No wonder. With 16 grams of sugar, that half-cup of black beans had more sugar than the 14 grams in an Oreo cookie.
It’s tempting to grade on good intentions — a fast food chain with steamed vegetables deserves some credit. But between the food, the experience and the sodium content, one can’t honestly declare this visit to El Pollo Loco a winner.