Tex-Mex and Latin cuisine gets a bad rap for being high in calories, fat, sodium and everything else in between. After a bowl of chips (that never becomes empty) plus guacamole, queso, sizzling fajita meat and veggies doused in oil, several flour tortillas, cheese, sour cream, beans (refried or charro) and the thirst-quenching margaritas served in a salt-rimmed glass, you're probably close to 2,000 calories and more than a day's worth of sodium.
Skinny Rita's Grille on North Main opened a few weeks ago boasting a menu filled with lighter and skinnier options for folks to enjoy Latin cuisine minus some of the guilt. One look at the menu and you'll notice a few major differences from other Tex-Mex spots in town, such as the use of cactus flour instead of regular flour. The chips are made from a combination of cactus and corn flours, yielding green chips mixed with yellow corn tortilla ones. The margaritas also lack a lot of the added sugars most margs usually have -- each is made with organic tequila, fresh fruit juice and agave nectar, and ranges from 100 to 125 calories. Not too shabby.
According to the website, "Skinny Rita's Grille was created to enjoy Mexican and Latin flavors in a healthier way. Our chicken, pork and beef are farm and naturally raised, no antibiotics, hormone-free and gluten-free. Our food is cooked with olive oil and coconut oil."
Substituting cactus flour for regular flour and lowering the amount of sugar in margaritas definitely lives up to the healthy connotation from the restaurant's name. But, how do duck quesadillas and oily fajita meat and veggies live up to the healthier Latin food standard?
Our meal started off great with a bowl of nopal (cactus) chips mixed with corn tortilla chips, served with three different types of salsas - tomatillo, habanero and roasted. The selection of salsas varying in heat were great accompaniments to the cactus and corn chips. Even though some were green, they still tasted great. There's a slight nutty after-taste and the chips are a lot thicker than most tortilla chips. I was surprised that each chip was also evenly salted, especially at a lighter-fare restaurant. Usually I find myself having to add salt to the chip bowl at most Tex-Mex restaurants.
I couldn't help but order an appetizer of the duck quesadillas among the other lighter options. The quesadillas sliced into triangles arrived with a generous helping of guacamole and sour cream. Cheese oozed out the sides of the wheat tortillas, and each was nicely packed with shredded duck. It looked like a typical quesadilla platter you would get at any Tex-Mex restaurant -- the tortillas were toasted and grilled, the mixture of cheeses melted out of each triangle (as did the grease) and the shredded duck was tender and juicy. It tasted great. Who can say duck, cheese and tortillas plus guacamole and sour cream isn't delicious? I just don't understand what's so "skinny" about it.
The margaritas were quite tasty, as the main ingredients weren't masked by added sugar. The Heritage Margarita featuring Texas ingredients is much better than the House Margarita, but both are tart, strong and are perfectly balanced by the natural sugars from the fruit juice.
The fajita meat (chicken and beef) and veggies served on a hot plate at the table were grilled in a generous helping of oil, like most Tex-Mex spots, but everything on the platter was heavily seasoned with spice, so on its own, the veggies and meat were too hot. However, once wrapped in a tortilla and stuffed with all the fixings, the spice was mellowed out. Unfortunately, the cactus flour tortillas do not taste as good as the nopal chips, so stick with the regular corn or flour tortillas.
Skip the side of rice -- it's plain, bland and not worth the extra calories. But, the black bean charro beans are a great addition to your meal. Granted, it isn't the healthiest of options with the addition of bacon -- I don't care if it is organic, it is still bacon -- but the substitution of black beans for traditional pinto is a nice change of pace.
For what it's worth, the tofu on top of the Laredo's Chopped Salad was much better than expected. Tofu can be bland, watery and rubbery, especially if not cooked properly and under-seasoned. But, the four strips of blackened grilled tofu packed a lot of spice. Even my carnivorous dining companion enjoyed his bite. My only suggestion is to toss the salad ingredients, rather than laying them all on top of a giant bowl of spring mix. By the time you get halfway through the salad, you're left with leafy greens.
Skinny Rita's has a great concept. The skinny margaritas are spot-on and the cactus chips are a tasty alternative to regular flour tortilla chips. But, there's some disconnect between a few of the food offerings and the premise of the restaurant. Fresh and organic ingredients does not mean they are "skinny," it just means they are fresh and organic. Neither does organic bacon, and natural, hormone-free and antibiotic-free duck meat.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.