Following a healthy diet is hard enough in a controlled environment, like your own kitchen, but it becomes a bit more challenging when you have to take it "outside." Holding her doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine and a Masters in Nutrition, we knew that Lauren Cassandra, a Certified Health and Fitness Specialist at PTP of Ridgefield, would be up for the challenge of navigating us down a healthy path.
With HamletHub's own Anmarie Galowski at her side, this nutrition conscious and always hungry duo have begun co-writing their new column, "PTP and HamletHub's Healthy Dining Series." Their latest adventure? Southwest Cafe.
For HamletHub's challenge, Cassandra and Galowski decided to make it simple: eat at local restaurants, order off the menu, and keep it healthy. The focus of their latest adventure was The Southwest Cafe. You may be asking, "Margaritas, Chips, Tacos? How will they make that healthy?" The hungry ladies tell all.
When it comes to healthy eating, we pride ourselves on it. Our latest excursion found us diving into Santa Fe style "New Mexico" food and margaritas at Southwest Cafe, the perfect place to test our ordering skills. Our three-hour fiesta was both enlightening and insanely delicious as owner Barb Nevins educated us on chili peppers, tequila infusions and Venezuelan delicacies.
Sticking to our strict rule of either drinks or dessert, we began with a refreshing Margarita. Most Mexican restaurants offer "The Skinny" margarita, too often consisting of a pre-made mix and artificial sweeteners leaving you with a morning headache and stuffy nose. Not the case at Southwest Cafe! Nevins and her team use only top shelf tequila, agave syrup, fresh lime juice and plain soda water. (Salt comes optional and we declined it.) It is important to note that of all the distilled alcohols, tequila has the least amount of sugar. Studies have also shown that it breaks down dietary fat, which aids in lowering "bad cholesterol" (LDL). The Aztec Indians used the nectar of agave to treat wounds and skin conditions because of it's antibacterial and medicinal properties. Agave also contains saponins and fructans, both known for their immune boosting and anti-inflammatory properties. Agave is also low on the glycemic index, so it doesn't spike blood sugar like table sugar does. Combine this with the Vitamin C from the fresh lime juice and you have yourself a little health tonic. No wonder the bar area was hopping!
Southwest Cafe also makes their own Tequila Infusion specials that can be sipped or mixed with soda water. With an ever changing array of flavors and combinations, the grapefruit, jalapeno and lemon-ginger blends are all known to increase metabolism and burn fat.
The extensive drinks menu also offers both organic and sustainable wines. Our favorites are a Benziger Savignon Blanc as a white option and a Natura Syrah as a red. Organic wines are low in sulfites, which are the crux of most vino-induced headaches. Another alternative is always the Corona Light with a lime. Just remember, all good things in moderation, and stick to one.
As we sat back enjoying our cocktails and conversation, we debated the complimentary basket of Chips and Salsa that looked oh, so delicious. A nutritionist may say, "eat this, don't eat that," but if you want to hear it from Lauren, a real person who loves eating out, the feeling is this: if you are going to have them, enjoy a couple and be done with it.
Along with the homemade Salsa, we paired our chips with Southwest Cafe's fabulous Homemade Guacamole. Made with ripe avocados, an excellent source of fiber and vitamins, research suggests that this superfoods "good fats" reduce levels of bad cholesterol while lowering the risk of stroke and heart disease. We each took 5 chips (okay maybe 10) and put them on the napkins in front of us; our version of practicing portion control. We savored each dip while saving our appetites for what was to come.
For appetizers, the chef made an Organic Eggplant and Tomato Soup prepared with Serrano chilies. Chilies contain capsaicin, known to stimulate endorphins (the feel good chemicals) in the brain, as well as being known for their natural pain killer abilities. This soup du jour was topped with Manchego cheese (made from sheep's milk) a natural, non-processed, and low-fat compliment.
Southwest Cafe's wonderful salad options include a Quinoa & Hearts of Romaine Salad, topped with apples, avocado, cabrales cheese (a Spanish blue made from goat's milk) and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds and a trademark in Mexican cuisine). Cabrales cheese is raw and naturally low-fat making it a great addition to the calorie conscious person's meal. Raw cheese is unique for the fact that it is not pasteurized and has active enzymes, such as lactase, which helps digest lactose. This allows for better digestion and is even tolerated by some people who are lactose intolerant! Along with the fiber from the apples and the many minerals that the pepita's pack in each bite, this salad is crunchy and satisfying. Other healthy top picks are the Two Color Beet and Arugula Salad (you know how we feel about beets!) and the traditional Southwest Salad. The Southwest Salad is made with black beans, an excellent source of resistant fiber (great for aiding weight loss) and queso fresco, "fresh cheese," naturally low in fat and high in calcium. Mushrooms, chicken, tuna, steak, shrimp or salmon are healthy additions available to take any of the salads from appetizer to entree status.
Besides debating our drinks vs. dessert rule, we also contested (and this time opted out of) our "ordering off the menu" rule when it came to our appetizers. Southwest Cafe prides itself on using the freshest, in-season options from local sources for their daily offerings, whether this means shopping next store at Ridgefield Organics or choosing from over 25 different kinds of chiles from a farmer in Newtown.
The two appetizers we chose, from the "specials" menu, included risotto, not typically considered a healthy option with it's cheese and butter creaminess. Once we read further, however, we were intrigued to find that it was Quinoa Risotto. It was phenomenal! Typically high in carbohydrates, Arborio rice (risotto) is a no-no for weight loss, but when prepared with quinoa, the super protein grain, it transformed itself into a healthy dish. Filled with fresh veggies and manchego cheese we split it along with another appetizer, Catfish Arepa. Prepared with macho chile sauce, black bean paste, organic sweet green cherry tomatoes, and a honey chile de arbol dressing, Southwest's Venezuelan chef prepared this cultural delight by baking the fish, instead of the usual fried fish variety.
And it's back to the menu we go...
Southwest Cafe's main course options are extensive, so let's look at the "best of the best." The Chimayo Honey Glazed Salmon is pan roasted and served with rice and vegetables, but we suggest skipping the rice and doubling up on the vegetables. As Nevins says, "as long as we have the ingredients, special orders are always accepted." The omega three fatty acids in the salmon and the metabolic burning of the chili peppers make this the perfect healthy combination. Fish Tacos, made with sushi grade tuna, are served with whole-wheat tortillas. Add a side of black beans and this is both nutritious and filling. The Steak Fajitas are a great choice for someone with a larger appetite. Prepared with sautéed red peppers, which are packed with antioxidants, and onions, which have the powerful flavanoid quercetin known to combat asthmatic symptoms, this fun dish is adorned with guacamole, pico de gailo (a spicy fresh salsa) and lime lettuce. Last but not least is the flavorful Shrimp 'N Masa. The garlic shrimp (a delicious source of protein), vitamin D, vitamin B3 and zinc, are grilled and served over an organic polenta. Polenta is low in carbohydrates, high in vitamins A and C, and studies have indicated its use in both cancer and heart disease prevention.
Other more traditional but still healthy selections from our pick of the menu are Chicken Quesadillas with Pesto & Mango and Southwest's "famous" Green Chile Stew. Pesto is extremely high in vitamin C, while mangos are linked to cancer prevention, lowering cholesterol and are an alkalizing food, (which means they reduce acidity throughout the whole body). We suggest requesting the whole wheat tortilla while ordering. The Green Chile Stew contains potatoes and veggies and we recommend adding chicken or beef for protein. Green chilies are typically made with poblano peppers, which are mild, not spicy and contain vitamins A, C, K and the antioxidant capsaicin. Comforting, satisfying, and healthy never tasted so good!
The SWC children's menu offers welcomed additions to the typical staple of chicken nuggets and french fries. Cheese quesadillas are fun and yummy, and the fajitas really excite the adventurous kids who can't help but play with their food!
If unlike us you passed on that margarita, Southwest Cafe offers two truly enticing desserts. For the gluten-free, chocolate lovers out there you owe it to yourself to take a bite of the decadent Flourless Chocolate Cake. In the warmer months, fiber rich Mixed Berries from Ridgefield Organics are served with fresh organic whipped cream. As Nevins points out with all of Southwest's offerings, "everything is as fresh as we can get it."
The verdict is in and Southwest Cafe's Santa Fe style cuisine passed every one of our healthy choice tests! There is just no reason to stay home anymore! Next stop? Sarah's Wine Bar.
Southwest Cafe is tucked into the Copps Hill Commons at 109 Danbury Road.