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.

California Tortilla's Southwestern chicken salad—without tortilla chips—is the restaurant's healthiest option. Photograph courtesy of California Tortilla.

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