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Mastering Mexican Dining

Updated March 29, 2023

This article originally appeared in the April 2003 McDougall Newsletter and has been updated in March 2023.

One of our favorite places to eat out is in a Mexican restaurant – and this is also one of the easiest places to get closest to McDougall-style food anywhere in the world.  Mexican restaurants range from hole-in-the-wall Taquerias to gourmet fine dining. Some of the simplest items are sold in fast food “chains” like Del Taco, La Salsa, Taco Time, Chipotle, Qdoba, and Baja Fresh. Popular upscale “chain” restaurants are also found worldwide, like Chevy’s, El Torito, Chi Chi’s and El Cholo.  Many airports, like Denver and Los Angeles International, have Mexican restaurants where we often eat great food. The Internet will provide you with online menus for many of these places, so you can check out what they serve before you arrive.

But you have to be an alert consumer when ordering in a Mexican restaurant. Let’s go through some of your choices, just as you would in the restaurant. What is usually the first thing that you are offered when you sit down in a Mexican restaurant? Chips and salsa, right? The salsa is likely to be a healthy choice, but count on the chips to be swimming in oil. They are corn tortillas, deep-fried to make them crispy. Send the greasy chips back to the kitchen (so you’re not tempted) and ask your waiter for some soft corn tortillas instead. Better yet, plan ahead and take your own non-fat tortilla chips from home. Either way you will have a great appetizer with no-added fat: corn chips or tortillas, and a variety of salsas. You can also order some bean dip and guacamole with your chips – but consider the issues in the following paragraphs.

Next, look over the menu, scanning for the healthy options. Seems like the “fancier” the Mexican restaurant, the more they focus on meat, poultry and seafood – catering to the American palate and those risk-takers on high-protein diets. After passing over the meat and cheese dishes, you’ll finally find the beans, rice, and vegetables. Mexican restaurants usually have some kind of beans on their menu, and they’re often “refried.” Don’t be afraid to ask what’s in the beans.

In a typical Mexican restaurant, the cook starts the day with dry beans, which he boils until soft. Then he mashes the whole, cooked beans in a frying pan and stirs in some kind of fat – usually either vegetable oil (vegetarian) or lard. This is most commonly done to the pinto beans – black beans are usually left whole. Now that you understand the cooking process, you know that at some time during the day there were beans in that restaurant just the way you like them – whole, cooked without added fat. Now all you have to do is ask your waiter, “Do you have whole beans?” Most likely there will be a pot of whole, cooked beans simmering back in the kitchen just waiting for your order. If that is not the case, then you should think about finding another restaurant.

The vegetables and rice are your next challenges. The vegetables are usually grilled, so you need to ask them to prepare the vegetables on a dry griddle with little or no oil brushed on top. The rice is often cooked in chicken broth – so ask before you order.

You’ve got the basic ingredients certified “clean,” so now you’re ready to order. Ask them to make you a bean burrito, with whole beans, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa – add some vegetables and/or rice, if they are healthy. Very important, don’t forget to tell your waiter “no cheese and no sour cream!” (Sour cream does not fit into the “cheese” category for most waiters, so you have to mention it separately.) If necessary, explain that you are allergic to dairy products and if they get into your food you will have a reaction.

Flour tortillas in almost every Mexican restaurant are going to contain some oil. Face it. So if you want to avoid all added fat, then simply ask for some soft corn tortillas (they are almost always fat-free). Then order as side dishes: whole beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa – and make your own soft taco at your table. You’ll get a check for less than $8 a person ordering these dishes a la carte. Guacamole is also an option, but remember avocado has quite a bit of natural vegetable fat in it – not so good if you are trying to lose weight or regain lost health.

Some of our favorite Mexican eateries are simple Taquerias. The food is usually cheap, clean and fast  Some of our favorite fast food chains are La Salsa, Baja Fresh, Chipotle, and Qdoba – offering both whole pinto and black beans, and lettuce and tomatoes with a variety of salsas. But there are similar chains offering counter service and cafeteria-style ordering popping up all over the world – because people like good, inexpensive, fast Mexican food.  McDougall followers also like it fat-free and lacking animal products.