Southern California-based casual dining chain Lazy Dog Cafe has just revealed an answer to a question they get asked rather frequently (we assume), "where are your healthier menu options?"
To be honest, that's not really a question I find myself asking when I visit Lazy Dog Cafe. When it's time to eat out, I go to my spots, I eat, and I enjoy. I often find that chains who force themselves to release a 'lighter fare' menu often find themselves fighting an uphill stigma that anything on that particular menu is not only uncool to order, but will undoubtedly be less flavorful and enjoyable than the rest of the items on the menu.
While the branding on Lazy Dog's new 'nutritious menu' will face some of the same scrutiny that other chains face, we decided to give them a visit and grab a seat with the brand's executive chef -- a warm, talented and passionate man by the name of Gabriel Caliendo:
Upon arrival at the their Orange, CA location, Gabe (seen above) met us at the table, eager to prove to us that the dishes created for his new summer menu were more than just stripped down versions of more tastier options -- each plate had a story.
The idea behind the menu is that each plate of the 11-piece menu not only clocks in under 650 calories, but had to taste good -- with an underlying hope that he could surprise his guests with items they wouldn't traditionally expect from a low calorie menu, like a enchiladas and a turkey burger.
After chopping it up about the food industry, our favorite chefs, our least favorite chefs and how Gabe's cute kid is deathly allergic to taking out the trash, we decided the only way to get a proper idea of Lazy Dog's new "healthy" menu items was try it out. Every. Last. Dish.
Sure enough, out they came. The first banger:
Seen above is the Beefsteak Tomato & Mozzarella Salad, quite easily my favorite dish from the appetizer selection. It's simple, sexy, and the flavors were surprisingly rich.
The plate consists of a few thick slices of vine-ripened beefsteak tomatoes, topped with fresh mozzarella, sundried tomatoes (tomatoception), roasted red peppers, basil and a touch of sea salt, drizzled with a walnut-pesto and balsamic vinaigrette that you'll probably want want to lick off the plate once you've devoured the tomatoes.
Funny that this beefsteak tomato dish -- one of the most simple combos on the menu -- is the most caloric, topping the chart with 650 calories. It's a sexy dish to order, healthy menu or not.
The next few dishes that came out included the rest of their salad arrangement, including a Chop't Spinach, Feta & Chicken Salad followed by a Spicy Thai Chicken Salad. Here's a look:
The round table consensus of our group of carnivores was that the Spicy Thai Chicken Salad would get ordered before the Chop't Spinach & Feta. Next few items that came out were the Jerk Chicken and Pork & Chili Verde Crisp. Safe to say, the Pork & Chili Verde Crisp was the best thing on the menu, hands down:
Both crisps are brick oven-baked into lavosh, with the Jerk Chicken featuring a marinated poultry, tiki sauce, mozzarella cheese, roasted red peppers, cilantro, chili flakes & green onions (a measly 490 calories). The Pork & Chili Verde Crisp, the winner of the bunch and the menu in general, features the same brick oven baked lavosh crisp topped with tender shredded pork, mozzarella, tomatoes, cilantro, roasted tomatillo sauce, Tapatio crema, pickled red onions, carrots and orange (540 calories). If you had to try one thing off the menu, go with the Pork & Chili Verde Crisp.
Next up came the sandwiches, first on deck was the Veggie Lavosh Sandwich, a combination of gouda cheese, sundried tomato hummus, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, red onions, avocado & sliced radish, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette folded into two soft lavosh squares.
As another handheld option on the menu, the team has whittled down their burger option into something they're calling the Naked Turkey Burger. It hosts a hand-formed lean turkey patty, toasted whole wheat bun, a Lazy Dog Amber Ale whole grain mustard, lettuce, tomato, red onion & pickle.
The last two items brought out were the hefty dishes...not just in the sheer amount of food, but in the stories tied their creation. Seen above, the Roasted Tomatillo Chicken Enchilada, doesn't really have a particular story of origin, but it's one of the dishes that Chef Gabriel definitely wanted to see on the menu. The mere fact that he found a way to get an entire Enchilada dish -- arguably the most hefty and filling piece of the entire healthy menu -- to clock in at 620 calories is a storied achievement of its own.
The use of hand-pulled chicken breast, house-made tomatillo sauce, sautéed onions and black beans all help keep the calorie count low. Three tiny street taco corn tortillas also cover the chicken, giving you enchilada texture without traditional enchilada calorie abomination. If you're a fan of cheesy enchiladas, this dish isn't necessarily for you. There's just enough cheese sprinkled for a bit of flavor and a couple bites of gooey-ness, but it's nowhere near the coating of cheese and sauce you're used to at your run-of-the-mill Mexican food establishments. You'll get full, but you won't feel like crap after.
Rounding out the menu is a Barramundi Fish plate, inspired by Gabe's recent trip to Central America. The pan roasted Barramundi fish is prepared Yucatan style, and sits on a banana leaf and a bed of black beans, topped with sautéed zucchini, roasted red peppers & onions and drizzled with a cilantro pesto sauce and pickled carrot, onion and orange salad:
There you have it...11 items under 650 calories...but fair warning, eating them all in one sitting can add up (durr). If you get a chance to try out some items from the new menu at one of the chain's Southern California locations, you won't be disappointed.
Personal recommendations include the Pork and Chili Verde Crisp and the Beef Steak Tomato and Mozzarella Salad for the table, followed up by the Barramundi Fish and the Roasted Tomatillo Chicken Enchilada (get em both and share them with the table to get a bit of everything).