Today there’s a wide range of Mexican restaurants in the US. There are several large Mexican fast food chains and a growing number of fast-casual chains serving Mexican food. Then there’s several table service chains serving Mexican food. Last but not least in larger cities you can find upscale restaurants serving Mexican cuisine.
Most fast food and fast casual Mexican restaurants serve what’s called Tex-Mex - an Americanized version of a few items from Mexico’s diverse culinary landscape. Think nachos, tacos, burritos and chimichangas. But over the past decade or so, things have changed. Traditional Mexican herbs and spices are now more readily available in the US and chefs, particularly in upscale restaurants, are increasingly exploring and using these bold flavors.
While specific dishes may vary, Mexican cuisine typically features five essential ingredients: rice, corn, beans, tomatoes, and a wide array of chilies. These ingredients are, before being prepared, healthy—high in vitamins and minerals and low in fat. Plus, spicy toppings—red or green salsa, pico de gallo, and chilies—up your vegetable count and adds great flavor with next to nil calories.
There’s minimal focus on animal protein in Mexican food compared to a typical American meal. Compare the small quantity of meat, one to two ounces, in one enchilada to our familiar eight-to ten-ounce steak. This has its roots in the old Mexican practice of making a small amount of meat feed many mouths (a common thread in many ethnic cuisines). Soft tacos filled with beans and vegetables, chicken enchiladas, grilled fajitas, and fresh salads are just a few of the healthier dishes you can choose.
However, the health attributes of traditional Mexican ingredients can be quickly squashed if foods are fried, refried, or smothered with cheese or sour cream, as they often are in Mexican cuisine. Think of dishes such as loaded nachos, quesdaillas, chimichangas and Mexican salads served in the fried tortilla bowl.
Fat, like in many restaurant foods, is clearly the villain when you’re trying to eat a healthy Mexican restaurant meal. There are many fried items, and many Mexican recipes traditionally call for the use of lard or animal fat drippings. Both of these items contain cholesterol and saturated fat. Due to pressure to improve the healthiness of their foods, large restaurant chains have switched to using healthier liquid oils.
Mexican food can also be high in sodium. Salt is used in many recipes and sauces, and a lot of the prep work is done in advance, such as spicing meats to stuff into tacos or burritos. This makes it difficult to request that salt be omitted. However, if you order a dish such as grilled chicken, fish, or beef in an upscale Mexican restaurant, you might be successful with a “hold-the-salt” request because they might cook from scratch.
Chips, salsa, and large amounts of cheese can also contribute to raising the sodium level. Due to its zesty taste, green or red salsa can be used to add punch to salads or chicken and fish dishes, and salsa is fine to use in small amounts.
One more stumbling block, particularly in sit-down restaurants are the large portions – think combo plates. This can escalate your calorie count. Strategies to use at Mexican restaurants are: watch the portions in your entire meal, say no to high-fat toppings like cheese and sour cream, and avoid anything deep-fried.
These are a few healthier dishes you'll find on most Mexican restaurant menus:
Appetizers: Tortilla soup, Gazpacho, Black bean soup, Mexican pizza, Chili
Entrees: Soft tacos, Burritos, Enchiladas, Fajitas (usually enough to split), Tostadas, Mexican or taco salad (hold the fried tortilla shell and sour cream)
Sides: Black beans, Mexican rice, Mexican salad (lettuce, tomato, onion), Pico de gallo.
To learn more about eating healthfully at Mexican restaurants get a copy of my book: Eat Out, Eat Well – The Guide to Eating Healthy in Any Restaurant. Consider downloading the free companion app Eat Out Well – Restaurant Nutrition Finder to your mobile device.