A Guide to Eating Healthy at a Mexican Cantina, Plus Recipes

Our Southern-bordering neighbor is known for its flavor-bursting cuisine, with key ingredients including various chiles, colorful peppers, cilantro, lime, beans and more.

Mexican restaurants offer both healthy and unhealthy options, but sometimes it’s difficult to decipher just what is loaded in saturated fat and calories. While it’s certainly OK to indulge in favorite foods occasionally, here are some things to consider during your next cantina visit.

It’s no secret vegetable-rich salads are packed in great nutrients, but taco salads are often served in deep-fried tortilla bowls. To skip the excess fat, opt for a plate instead. Here are more things to keep in mind:

  • Black beans are loaded in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals — but refried beans are often prepared with lard and bacon, driving up the saturated fat content and calories.
  • Hard tacos are fried, making soft tacos a healthier option.
  • Nachos, chimichangas, chalupas, taquitos, chile relleno are most likely deep-fried.

Mexican cuisine is famous for packing vitamin C, lycopene, fiber and other excellent nutrients into foods. Keep this in mind to choose a healthy option:

  • Make salsa the star of the show — use salsa to dress up the meal rather than enjoying it only with chips. Salsa is rich in vitamin C, and guacamole is a great source of medium-chain triglycerides. Choose these fresh sauces and dips over cheese sauces and sour cream.
  • Chicken fajitas — the vegetables are loaded in fiber, folate and vitamin B6, while the chicken is flavorful and a great source of protein.
  • Black beans are a plant-based protein with iron and magnesium.

What’s the skinny on skinny margaritas?

  • While margaritas can be tart and refreshing, simple syrup or a sweet-and-sour mix is responsible for the sugar overload in most margaritas. Opt for a margarita on the rocks with tequila, triple sec and lime juice, and ask for syrup on the side to control the sweetness.
  • Since restaurant food already is likely high in sodium, opting for a no-salt rim might help skip the bloat the next day.

Traditional Mexican Salsa

Traditional Mexican salsa is made using a molcajete, a type of mortar and pestle. Crushing the vegetables and herbs with the tool releases a full range of essential oils, flavors and aromatics, resulting in a more complex-flavored salsa than a blender offers. Follow along to make this mouth-watering salsa at home.

Elote, or street corn

Elote, or street corn, is a staple food sold by Mexican street vendors, along with tamales and other delicious dishes. Corn is in season June-August in Michigan, making elote a great summer side dish or treat to enjoy at a summer barbecue. Some Mexican recipes call for boiling the cobs of corn in a bath of spices and epazote, which has a similar flavor to bay leaves and thyme. For preparation on the grill, as in this recipe, consider placing a skewer through the cob for a not-so-messy eating experience or serving it as elotito ( corn in a cup).

 

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Traditional Mexican salsa is made using a molcajete, a type of mortar and pestle.

Authentic Mexican salsa-inspired recipe


Description

Traditional Mexican salsa is made using a molcajete, a type of mortar and pestle.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 3 large Roma tomatoes
  • 1 serrano pepper, stem and seeds removed
  • 3 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
  • Juice from 1/2 lime
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 Tbsp red onion, chopped
  • 2 Tbsp cilantro leaves, stems removed and chopped

Instructions

1. In a saucepan over high heat, char and blister tomatoes, chiles, garlic and onions until all sides are evenly charred and skins split on the tomato.
2. In a mortar with pestle or molcajete, grind garlic and salt into a paste. With the pestle placed at the end of the chile, press down firmly and run the pestle across it to press out the interior of the chile. Discard the chile skin.
3. Grind the chile into the garlic/salt paste.
4. Chop the tomatoes, leaving the skins on. Add the chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and lime juice to the bowl. Using the mortar and pestle or molcajete, press and crush mixture until desired texture. Add more salt to taste.


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Elote, or street corn, is a staple food sold by Mexican street vendors.

Description

Elote, or street corn, is a staple food sold by Mexican street vendors.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 4 cobs of corn
  • ¼ cup light mayonnaise*
  • ½ cup queso fresco or cotija cheese, crumbled
  • 1 lime, cut into 4 wedges
  • Spray olive oil
  • Tajin to taste (or powdered chile)
  • ¼ cup light mayonnaise*
  • ½ cup queso fresco or cotija cheese, crumbled
  • 1 lime, cut into 4 wedges
  • Spray olive oil
  • Tajin to taste (or powdered chile)

*Many traditional recipes use crème fraiche and/or full-fat mayonnaise.


Instructions

1. Preheat the grill and spray the grate with oil to prepare.
2. Spray corn cobs with olive oil, grill for about 15 minutes, turning every 5 minutes.
3. Brush the corn with mayonnaise, roll in cheese, then sprinkle with chile powder and lime. Enjoy!


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  1. Thank you for the great recipes and the margarita tips – can’t wait to try them tomorrow and throughout the summer.

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