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Lunch Break: California Tortilla
We’ve never said this before—but if you’re trying to be healthy, you probably don’t want to eat here. By Jazelle Hunt
California Tortilla's Southwestern chicken salad—without tortilla chips—is the restaurant's healthiest option. Photograph courtesy of California Tortilla.
Comments () | Published March 20, 2012

We've covered quite a few eateries for our Lunch Break feature, but this week marks the first time our expert couldn't find a single thing to happily recommend.

We asked certified nutrition specialist Susan Berkow, PhD to take a look at California Tortilla--which began in Bethesda almost 17 years ago--and she reported back with surprising findings.

"Overall, the menu is really bad, not even just marginally bad," she says. "Everything is loaded with sodium, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol."

Berkow does point out that many items are packed with protein and fiber thanks to the beans and tortillas. You can also say "make it light" to have the tortilla, tortilla chips, and/or cheese removed from your order for a less damaging meal. But a quick look at the nutrition calculator shows that in most cases, these provisions aren't enough to redeem the dishes.

Instead of our usual worst-better-best rundown, we've pulled out a few of the less-threatening options to serve as a point of reference before introducing the one menu item that could be a good choice if modified correctly. Read on, and eat at your own risk.

• "No meato" burrito (small, no sauce): It has 499 calories, 12 grams of fiber, and 14 grams of protein, no cholesterol, and heart-healthy guacamole--so it's a mystery how this meatless, veggie-filled burrito ends up with 12 percent of your daily saturated fat and 1,656 milligrams of sodium.

• Sunset chicken and veggie bowl (small, no sauce): If you lose the Sunset sauce, this simple bowl is packed with protein and could almost pass for a reasonable meal--until you see that it contains 57 percent of your daily recommended sodium and 21 percent of your daily cholesterol, despite being only 326 calories.

• Fish taco: Fish tacos are an okay option, as long as you only eat one. A single taco has 242 calories, 18 grams of protein, and only 598 milligrams of sodium. Unfortunately, these come two at a time at California Tortilla, so double those numbers and you'll be eating 70 milligrams of cholesterol (24 percent of your daily value) in a barely satiating meal.

• Veggie fajita platter: Here are the innocuous ingredients: six-inch tortilla, rice, black beans, vegetable mix, fajita vegetables, salsa, guacamole, and lettuce. Somehow they pack in 2,087 milligrams of sodium and 622 calories.

• Spinach quesadilla: It's just a six-inch tortilla, spinach, and Monterey Jack cheese. But it's also 903 milligrams of sodium, 75 milligrams of cholesterol, and 88 percent of your daily saturated fat.

SAFEST BET--Southwestern chicken salad (without tortilla strips): The one option Berkow backed offers 527 calories. While it is still very high in cholesterol and saturated fat, it provides half your day's protein. If you want to bring it down to respectable levels, skip the cheese as well as the tortilla chips, she explains.

Because the online menu only includes a nutritional calculator instead of full stats, it's hard to tell exactly which ingredients are the offenders.

"The ingredients by themselves are all healthy choices, but [the restaurant] probably prepares them with added salt," Berkow posits, also adding that it's unclear whether the tortillas are fried (and if so, how), what the sauces's nutritional values are, and where the ingredients come from.

"I would suggest that the restaurant give a lot more information if they want to better serve their customers. [The food] started in a positive direction, but it has a ways to go."

Susan Berkow is a private consultant and teaches students and health care professionals at George Mason University. She can be reached at


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  • Greg

    I have recently come to the same conclusion. I work 200 feet from the original California Tortilla and have been eating there most days for lunch. I've been trying to eat healthier, so I now order burrito bowls. They conveniently display the calorie counts on the menu - so I thought I was doing well with a No Meat Burrito Bowl (Regular size) at 412 calories and (for them, significantly low) fat at 29% of my recommended daily value. Then I look down a little further and the bowl satisfies 83% of my sodium intake. I can't eat anything with any salt the rest of the day. It's ridiculous. The bowl tastes far too salty too - it would be much more enjoyable, would keep me eating there, and would help my health if they significantly lowered the salt in their product.

  • Abee

    Thanks for the response, Melrom. I'm glad to hear the series analyzes menus at other restaurants as well.

  • melrom

    Hi Abee,

    Thanks for your comment. You are right—plenty of restaurants offer menu items that are less than ideal when it comes to health and nutrition; not just California Tortilla is guilty of this. We have "singled out" all sorts of these restaurants and pointed out both good and bad options, including Chipotle, Roti, Chop't, Pret, Five Guys, etc. That is the point of our Lunch Break series. All nutritionists we've consulted for each post carefully review the menus; in this case, as we noted, the nutritionist could not comfortably recommend a "best" option. However, we hope that the options she did point out will help you make an easier, healthier menu choice at California Tortilla in the future.

  • Abee

    I agree that many of California Tortilla's meals are not healthy. However, why put the spotlight on California Tortilla? Those calorie counts are exactly what aanyone should expect from those menu items. If you eat a handful of cheese inside a massive tortila (with sour cream, guacamole and whatever else people stuff inside) and have a side of chips, what do you expect? A high calorie, high fat, high salt meal. California Tortilla is not unique. Most order-at-the-counter and dine-in restaurants with these same menu items have calorie counts equal to the numbers listed above....or worse. Chipotle, Qdoba Grill - it's the same story. A taco that is 242 calories sounds exactly right for the average taco. I don't get the blaming language in your Facebook post - "we're going to have to stop seeing you". Well unless you're planning to eat homemade meals or only eat at particuar restaurants, such as Litestars, that purposefully makes healthy meals, good luck. If you want tacos or burritos, you won't find many healthy options around town. This post would be better if it acknowledged that almost all restaurants around town have menu items that are terrible for your health - sauces, tortillas, chips, cheese. Even salads aren't safe unless you use common sense.

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