Last month, when I interviewed La Sandia chef Sergio Romo for my weekly chef and tell interview, he didn't mince words when I prodded him about what defines Mexican cuisine: "People think of Mexican food as heavy and laden with calories, but that's the Americanized version. Real Mexican food uses lots of fish and lean proteins, vegetables and salsas," he told me.
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And Richard Sandoval, who owns two metro Denver La Sandia locations, including a second outpost at Park Meadows, concurs. In fact, it's because of that misconception -- the overriding conclusion that Mexican food, at least in this country, is an avalanche of processed cheese, deep-fried tortillas and grease-dribbling meats -- that Sandoval, who also owns Tamayo, Zengo and Al Lado, all in Denver, recently launched a "Latin Light" menu at both La Sandia locations -- a menu that trumpets thirteen dishes, all of which are under 500 calories.
"I've been interested in developing a lighter menu for quite some time, because I think it's important to eat healthy, and I want diners to know that they can enjoy light Mexican and Latin foods without sacrificing texture or flavor, " explains Sandoval. "There's a misconception that this is a cuisine that's heavy with sauces and fat, when the reality is that many Mexican and Latin ingredients and seasonings are naturally light, nutritious and very flavorful," he adds.
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The "Latin light" board, which launched earlier this month and features thirteen dishes, will change seasonally, but currently includes shrimp fajitas partnered with salsa verde; Harris Ranch hanger steak tacos sided with lettuce wraps rather than tortillas; a trio of chile rellenos stuffed with fresh vegetables and Mexican cheese and paired with chicken soup; and flatbread topped with crimini mushrooms, goat cheese, bean puree and truffle oil.
Sandoval worked with registered dietician Diane Henderiks on the menu, and while the recipes are his, the lighter step in the dishes are a result of her expertise, notes Sandoval. "I gave her a list of my favorite dishes and she helped me tweak the recipes to cut out unnecessary calories, but we stayed true to my concepts and flavor profiles throughout the entire process, and the results are fantastic," he says.
A duo of lighter cocktails have also been added to the lineup: a citrus-spiked margarita with nectreese sugar and a muddled watermelon and tequila sandia, both of which are under 175 calories.
The lighter menu likely won't limit the number of green chile addicts in this city, and bulging burritos aren't going away, but the fact that Sandoval and his La Sandia chefs are encouraging diners to thin their waistlines by focusing on what makes Mexican food so good in the first place -- the spices, fresh herbs and seasonings -- is something that most of us can embrace, even if it means that we'll have to skip the chips.