What's not to love about a cuisine that favors good-for-you avocadoes and tomatoes and robust seasonings like chile and garlic? Mexican food is as delicious as it is varied, each region in the country has its own distinctive culinary voice, and healthful choices abound.
"There is a fallacy about Mexican restaurants that it's all cream and cheese and oil. It's really not. There are elements of that, but the Latin kitchen so is filled with great salads, stews made out of vegetables and tons of great fish dishes and chicken dishes," says Chef Susan Feniger.
Feniger should know. She is the co-chef and co-owner of three acclaimed Mexican restaurantsthe Border Grill in Santa Monica and in Las Vegas and Ciudad in Los Angelestogether with Chef Mary Sue Milliken. The personable pair has been dubbed the "Too Hot Tamales."
"One of the things about the Latin kitchen that makes it healthy by nature is it's all about strong flavors like garlic, lime juice, orange juice, grapefruit juice, oregano and chile," explains Feniger. "That's how they flavor the food. Whereas in the French kitchen, for example, they use butter to bring out the flavor."
Marinated grilled chicken and fish or dishes like fajitas or fish tacos are some of the wholesome, appetizing options on the menu at most Mexican restaurants. Also look for garlic baths, which are typical of the Yucatan- or Veracruz-style dishes, usually fish in a broth.
"Anything that is from a coastal part of MexicoBaja, Veracruzano or the Yucatanchances are it's going to be lighter because it is beach food and people are watching their weight because they have to put swim suits on," says Feniger.
Seviche, which is raw fish marinated in lime or orange juice with tomato, onion and cilantro, often appears on the menu in Mexican restaurants and is pretty guaranteed not to be heavy, the chef adds.
The traditional meal of rice, beans and tortillas is satisfying and nutritious, so long as it's not smothered in cheese and sour cream. Instead, top it with a spicy, tomato-rich salsa and guacamole, another Mexican staple made with avocadoes, which are rich in healthful, unsaturated fats. A tostada, minus the cheese, is usually another good option.
Chef Feniger says that diners will be missing out if they skip the fresh-tasting, palate-pleasing vegetable dishes of Mexico. "Salads are huge. Pickled vegetables and citrus-marinated slaws are also very typical Mexican food."