The Good and Bad about Mexican Food (Healthy Meals in Houston)

by Robert Nagle on 4/29/2010

in Texas/Regional

A few days ago I tried a local Mexican restaurant famous for their enchiladas. Their food was remarkably good (albeit a bit expensive).  My criteria for Mexican restaurants is extremely high; I’ve lived in Houston and San Antonio  for several decades and can’t say I’ve found more than 1 or 2 high quality Mexican restaurants. I’ve learned to eat Mexican food rarely (and in fact, I’ve eaten at restaurants a LOT less over the past two years because of the recession).

Hours later, the Mexican dinner didn’t sit particularly well with me. It didn’t make me sick; I just didn’t feel that the meal was satisfying. My stomach was a little queasy; it had to be the Mexican food. Then i remembered what I don’t like about Mexican food: It has no vegetables!

Instead, here’s what a typical Mexican dinner at a restaurant has to offer:

  • a meat dish, with a tortilla, cheese  and maybe some slight vegetable topping (i.e., pico de gallo sauce…a mix of tomatoes, onions and cilantro)
  • refried beans and rice. Refried beans provide a kind of filler. It doesn’t taste particularly good;  (especially if it is made traditionally with lard)
  • guacamole (onion  + avocados + lemon) with nachos. Nachos are a disgusting fried food which is also served with every meal.

So let’s look at this meal. I had some extremely delicious enchiladas and a bunch of  unhealthy crap. To be fair, this restaurant did have several vegetarian dishes – two or three of which seemed unique and remarkable – but that didn’t contradict the fact that the vegetable component was minimal and it still was accompanied by  crap.

It’s hardly necessary to mention that we live amidst  an obesity epidemic, that this problem affects the Hispanic population disproportionately and that restaurant food in general is fat and calorie rich. But when  did restaurants start  serving  crap (i.e. nachos and refried beans and rice) instead of healthy and high-fiber food?  I can afford a restaurant meal every so often, but I certainly can’t afford to eat food which is not going to make me feel healthy after eating it.

One can say that I should be willing to pay more for high-quality food. But that is not the point. I fully expect that if I went to a higher quality restaurant (Mexican or otherwise), I don’t just want  bigger and higher-quality portions of the usual crap.  How hard would it be for a McDonald’s to carry side orders of fresh broccoli or sweet potatoes or fresh fruit? (Real fresh fruit – not just a banana, or “fruit salad” or some proprietary  apple concoction). My rule of thumb about restaurant quality: you know you’re being gypped out of high quality and nutritious food when the dish has lots of lettuce on it.   Lettuce is just fluff  to ladle high calorie  sauce over. Ironically, the restaurants I have noticed with  the best vegetable sides are the steak places. They always have decent salads and all sorts of delicious and healthy vegetable sides.

(Because of the carbon footprint of beef, I mostly avoid it, but once in a while I find myself where I still will eat steak; believe me,  despite my global warming guilt, steak still tastes every bit as good as I remembered).

I am not a vegetarian, but I find that the reason why I no longer can enjoy any kind of restaurant food is that the dishes are unbalanced nutritionally. There are exceptions.  My brother manages an upscale burger place and I occasionally eat there (often I get free food). The hamburgers are delicious and unhealthy (no surprise), but there is one item on the menu which  is delicious and healthy and not crap.  Ironically, it is called Robert’s chicken and vegetables (although it has nothing to do with me). Basically it’s just grilled chicken with a heaping portion of real vegetables which are grilled with spices. I get the sense that it is not a popular menu item, and it’s easy for customers to miss it. But every time I finish it, I ask: why can’t more restaurants offer simple + nutritious meals like that? Is it really so hard?

Despite my familiarity with the Houston restaurant scene, there are very few dishes on menus that are balanced meals, affordable and not crap. I guess I should make a list of restaurant dishes which fit my bill of being tasty and nutritious and reasonably-priced. Overall, I think your best best is to visit Yelp and choose an Indian restaurant with lots of vegetable dishes (i.e., lentils and chick peas). I like these kinds of places, but don’t especially love them. They sound good in theory, but it’s usually mass-produced buffet food with ridiculous amounts of spices; I have nothing against spiciness, but that shouldn’t be the primary appeal of a dish; a dish should have a clear and distinct texture.

My list so far:

  • Loving Hut. A  remarkable vegan restaurant with lots of conventional dishes prepared with vegetarian substitutes. Overall, excellent, but my main complaint is that the dishes are never big enough for my appetite. I usually need to order two things to remain full.
  • Beck’s Prime. Robert’s Chicken with Vegetables.
  • Chatter’s Cafe. Chicken St. George.  Chicken with fresh vegetables
  • Chili’s Restaurant. I tried a great light entree called “Mango  chili tilapia” (or “Mango chili chicken”).  Chicken with avocadoes, chili, mango and sides of broccoli and rice. What a terrific combination — and less than $10!
  • More (forthcoming)

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