Separating Hype from Reality on Menus

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When you're on the run or out with friends, it's not always possible to plan ahead and do your research before heading to a restaurant. (If you can plan ahead, Tanya's Food on the Run series is a fantastic resource.) Once there, your senses are often assaulted by glossy photos on menus and table tents, tantalizing smells, and fast-paced sales pitches from servers. Even your fellow diners get in on the act, urging you to try the newest, most popular menu item. "Crispy breaded macaroni and cheese bites wrapped in bacon and served with our five-queso, dragon fire dipping sauce." Sounds good when everyone else is ordering it, right?

While the trend at some hip restaurants is simplicity (Mac-n-cheese: penne + pancetta + artisan Gouda), most restaurants add long descriptions to entice diners. "Fluffy omelets," "real cheese," and "fresh lettuce" become selling points.

But think about it: Omelets are fluffy by nature. Shouldn't all cheese be real? And would someone really serve not-fresh lettuce? (Perhaps, but most customers would send it back.) If you're telling me about a specific type of food--Hass avocados, which have a richer flavor than other varieties; Vidalia onions, known for their sweetness; or Niman Ranch pork, a high quality brand--then please add the descriptors. But if restaurants are stating the obvious, overselling their dishes, or trying to gloss over unhealthy ingredients, we as consumers should be able to read beyond that and make educated decisions.

My number one piece of advice for translating menus: If you would never be willing to eat the opposite of a menu description (e.g. stale bread, soggy lettuce, tough chicken), then the modifier is just hype!

When you're learning to maneuver the thick menus of restaurants and seek out healthier items, it's not always easy. I've scoured menus for descriptions that are full of hollow marketing terms. Let's separate hype from reality. Below, I'll translate these menu descriptions. Do any of these adjectives and descriptions actually mean food is better for us? Or--health aspects aside--does it really make a difference in the final taste? Does it justify an added cost? No restaurants will be named in the list below.

Menu: "hand patted burgers and homemade baked beans"

Translation: burgers and baked beans. While words like "hand patted," "homemade," and "family recipe" conjure images of wholesome, real foods, they don't mean the foods have any less fat or fewer calories.

Menu: "A sampling of our smooth and spicy queso, fresh guacamole, and spinach artichoke dip. Served with unlimited crisp tortilla chips."

Translation: Would they ever say their queso is lumpy? Likely not. Would they serve yesterday's guacamole? What about soggy chips? Nope. While the quality of food at restaurants can be argued, these terms aren't making the food any healthier. And "unlimited" is definitely a menu watch word.

Menu: "Tender, full-of-flavor chicken wings done three ways"

Translation: Shouldn't all meat be tender and full of flavor?

Menu: "A creamy soup made with roasted chicken, traditional Italian dumplings and spinach."

Translation: Creamy tells us it's likely not very low in fat or calories. Roasted chicken is a better choice than fried. But "traditional" doesn't say much. What does that mean? Are traditional dumplings fried? Filled with bacon? As large as a softball?

Menu: "Lightly breaded eggplant, fried and topped with marinara sauce, mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Served with spaghetti."

Translation: Ignore the words "lightly breaded." Focus instead on "fried." Those first two words try to make us feel like we're not eating as much fat as we really are.

Menu: "fresh-cooked, thick-cut Applewood Smoked Bacon and crumble aged blue cheese over 11 leafy greens. Then we add diced tomatoes and hand-chopped hard-boiled eggs and top it off with a warm, tender chicken breast and a creamy avocado ranch dressing"

Translation: Shouldn't all the bacon you're served be fresh? Thick cut means there's likely more of it. "Applewood smoked bacon" is a popular kind of bacon these days, but all bacon is smoked. You probably won't notice a difference between this bacon and other bacon. Blue cheese must be aged because the mold that causes the color takes some time to develop. But "11 leafy greens" tells us that we're getting more than just the standard iceberg. (Even though we don't know what those 11 greens are, they're likely dark and full of fiber and vitamins. Finally a menu word that's helpful!) "Hand-chopped" eggs taste just the same as eggs chopped in any other manner. Restaurants love to tell us their meat is tender, but that seems to be redundant, like saying "wet water." "Creamy," as we know, means "fatty."

Menu: "A juicy, plump footlong hot dog topped with warm chili and melty cheese."

Translation: This is a classic description that is meant to entice us. It's a chili-cheese hot dog, plain and simple. The rest is just teasing.

Menu: "seasoned beef patty topped with crisp lettuce, red-ripe tomatoes, onions, ketchup, and creamy mayo"

Translation: Does seasoned=salted? Maybe? It's hard to know. Crisp lettuce usually means you're getting iceberg lettuce (or sometimes the nutritionally superior Romaine) rather than anything dark and leafy. Chances are, that lettuce will be soggy by the time you eat your fast-food burger. As for the tomatoes, shouldn't they always be red and ripe? We'll ignore the creamy mayo, since we already covered that word a couple of times.

Menu: "Two Parmesan-crusted sautéed chicken breasts are basted with a touch of Caesar and served on a sizzling skillet of melted cheese and freshly prepared bruschetta mix. Served with a side of angel hair pasta topped with our zesty Roma-tomato, basil and garlic marinara."

Translation: A "crust" refers to the outer layer of bread, the base of a pie or tart, or "a hard or brittle external coat or covering" of something, according to the dictionary. It happens to be the restaurant industry's favorite adjective. Plop any food on the outside of something else, and you can call it "crusted." (I recently saw pumpkin "crusted" tofu. It was canned pumpkin mounded on top of a block of tofu and baked. Worst thing I've ever eaten!) Here, as in most cases, "crusted" is a watch word. Though "sauteed" is a healthier method of cooking, the chicken is basted (coated) in Caesar dressing, which is high in fat. And--whoa!--this is served in a skillet of melted cheese. That can't be healthy, even though it's served with "freshly prepared bruschetta mix." "Bruschetta" refers to a grilled bread appetizer from Italy, but many American restaurants interpret the tomato-basil topping as "bruschetta." Though they say the pasta is a "side," we can all but guarantee it will be a heaping portion. "Marinara" is usually a simple, fairly healthy tomato sauce. That this one has Roma tomatoes (a popular variety for sauces but nothing special), basil and garlic doesn't distinguish it from any other sauce. I'd really like to know what makes it "zesty." Tomatoes are acidic. Does that make it zesty? Garlic can be pungent. Is that why it's spicy?

Menu: "A warm, soft flour tortilla wrapped around seasoned ground beef, hearty beans, diced onions, real cheddar cheese, and tangy red sauce. You can also upgrade this item with marinated and grilled all-white-meat chicken or authentic carne asada steak."

Translation: Flour tortillas are almost void of any nutritional value. Corn tortillas are usually a better choice. What makes the beans "hearty"? Sliced or diced--does it matter to you how your onions are cut? What makes the red sauce "tangy"? Good to know that the chicken is all white meat, which is leaner than dark meat, but what do they mean by "authentic carne asada steak"? En español, carne asada means roasted meat. So… is this just roasted steak? What would be considered "unauthentic" carne asada? Would grilled or baked "carne" be unauthentic?

Menu: "Hand-dipped in our signature batter, then tossed in coconut and fried golden brown."

Translation: Now matter how you dip and batter something, it's still facing a fryer in its near future. And fry it to a pale brown, a golden brown, a caramel brown… no matter the color, it's still fried.

Need more help eating right on the go? Check out our comprehensive Dining Out Guide.

What is the most audacious menu claim that you've seen on a restaurant menu? Are you tempted by the table tents that advertise specials? Do you believe the hype that restaurants are pitching?