Baja Fresh has been serving "fresh, fast" Mexican meals since 1990, and with 19 locations in Washington it definitely deserves a spot in our Lunch Break series. We asked registered dietitian Sonja Goedkoop to see if the menu really lets you "eat well" and "live fresh," as the tagline promises.
"The menu is what I'd generally expect from this type of place--some items are horrible, and some are better," Goedkoop says. "There are lots of healthy options, too, with healthy ways to mix and match."
Take a look what our expert had to say about the great and not-so-great options at Baja Fresh.
BURRITOS & BOWLS
• Worst--Steak nacho burrito: Weighing in at 1,347 calories, 50 grams of fat, and a stunning 3,224 milligrams of sodium, this is a meal no one should eat. "It's pretty concerning," Goedkoop says. "I think when people go out to eat and don't pay attention, it's easy to turn a blind eye to an option like this."
• Better--Skinny chicken bowl: This bowl packs 624 calories (151 of them from fat) and 1,608 milligrams of sodium, but it has a few good things going for it, too. "Overall it's a good choice. It has great fiber, plus black beans and veggies for good nutrients, but it's still really high in total fat and sodium," our expert says. "The name tells you something about the meal, but you still have to be cautious. Even if something says 'skinny' or 'light,' that's not always the full picture."
• Best--Grilled wahoo bare burrito: This tortilla-free burrito includes simple, fresh ingredients such as onions, cilantro, salsa verde, and, of course, wahoo, a good steak fish. Goedkoop singles out this bowl for its 589 calories, 6 grams of fat, 33 grams of protein, and 21 grams of fiber, despite its whopping 2,049 milligrams of sodium. "All the other aspects still make it a good choice for a meal. The fiber helps you feel full, the fish is a good source of protein and nutrients, and the fact that it's grilled, not fried, helps lower the fat," she explains.
• Worst--Steak Americano soft taco: One taco is 260 calories, 640 milligrams of sodium, and 40 milligrams of cholesterol. "Compared with what we were just looking at, it's a lot less than the burritos, but this is just for one taco and most people don't eat just one taco," our expert says. She also points out that the Americano tacos are made with flour tortillas and cheese, which pile on calories and cholesterol.
• Best--Shrimp original Baja taco: "Shrimp is a great choice, since it has more nutrition than other meats," our expert says. "It has omega-3s--though not as much as other seafoods--and it cooks quickly to avoid the smoke and charring aspect, which adds unhealthy substances to animal proteins." One 200-calorie taco has 11 grams of protein and just 280 milligrams of sodium. You could easily have three and still be in the clear.
• Worst--Nachos: Anything that has the word "smothered" in the description is probably not the healthiest choice--especially if it's cheese doing most of the smothering. The regular nachos start at 945 calories, and you can order them grande. Goedkoop says, "You'd need to be sharing this with a lot of people to make it okay."
• Best--Fajitas: "They're lower in calories and fat, and they come on corn tortillas instead of flour," she explains (though you do have the option to choose your tortilla type). All the fajitas are still pretty high in sodium, so don't get too complacent.
• Shrimp Baja Ensalada: It's a snackworthy 230 calories, but packs 28 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber to keep you satiated. "This salad would be a great meal. The Baja salads all look great, especially if you limit your dressing," Goedkoop says.
While Baja Fresh serves trans-fat-free fresh meals using decent ingredients and toppings (wahoo, tomatillo salsa, and house-made guacamole, for example), its menu carries some nutritional hazards. The food is generally high in sodium, as with many lunch spots, including eateries like Baja Fresh that don't use processed foods.
Stick to corn tortillas instead of flour, or avoid them entirely if you can--ordering any of the burritos "bare" (the tortilla-free option) automatically cuts 350 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 540 milligrams of sodium. Don't eat burritos "enchilada style," which again means smothered in salsa and cheese, adding 630 calories, 19 grams of saturated fat, and 1,450 grams of sodium.
Additionally, steer clear of the kids' menu--with its options all in the 600-calorie range and upward of 900 milligrams of sodium, it's simply not nutritionally sound for tinier tummies; try two original Baja tacos instead. Finally, avoid the cheeses, creamy dressings, and sour cream: "Small amounts can make a big difference in your overall intakes," Goedkoop says.
Sonja Goedkoop is the research program coordinator for the Eat Right, Live Well! Supermarket Intervention Study at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.