Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 13, 2016. It was updated on March 20, 2019.
Atkins, low-carb, ketosis. Whatever you call it, cutting carbs is hard. And it's only tougher when you’re dining out.
The idea of the low-carb diet is relatively simple: Reduce your daily intake, which causes your body to utilize the fat it already has. The best way to do this? Eat more protein and vegetables, cheeses and a few nuts, and drink enough water to fill a kiddie pool. The caveat? Hold the bread, starch, and sugar … for, like, forever.
Not to worry, low-carb dieters, because we’ve put together an informal cheat sheet for those trying not to cheat on their diets. It includes everything from ordering tips, drive-thru tricks, and restaurant suggestions throughout the Valley.
Turning your morning meal low-carb is actually pretty easy, as breakfast usually means a variety of protein and beverages ideal for this diet. Go for bacon and eggs, omelets, vegetables, and cottage cheese. If you’re being really good, just order some items a la carte — i.e., “May I order a side of sausage, a side of bacon, and two eggs?” Easy. Avoid fruit if you’re first starting the diet; the sugar can halt your progress. Substitute what you can for cottage cheese, and yes, that means hash browns. And just have them hold the toast or biscuit.
Most breakfast spots in town will easily accommodate these orders. Try Ranch House Grille or Over Easy, Harlow's Café in Tempe, and of course, Matt’s Big Breakfast. Any location of U.S. Egg, The Good Egg, and 5 & Diner will do as well. And for brunch, the waygu steak and eggs at SumoMaya's bottomless brunch is highly recommended.
And to drink? Ask for a glass of water, or feel free to kick off the day with coffee or tea. Don’t order the sugary orange juice, or most other fruit juices for that matter, or milk. And for those hungover dieters, avoid mimosas. If you must have a drink, hit the Bloody Mary bar.
Here’s the good news: You can absolutely go to town on the hot sauces. But keep that sugary ketchup in the condiment caddy.
There are plenty of ways to whet your appetite before a low-carb meal. Some starter examples around town include meat and cheese boards, vegetables, deviled eggs, and of course, wings.
Try the Il Tagliere at Cibo, a wooden board boasting a selection of imported Italian meats, cheeses, nuts, and roasted vegetables. Hanny’s offers the Snack Plate, an array of prosciutto di parma, sopressata, Parmigiano-Reggiano, green olives, kalamata olives, and pistachio nuts – just don’t mess with the ciabatta bread. AZ88 in Scottsdale offers its water chestnuts, which are marinated and wrapped in Wisconsin Nueske bacon.
Wings are also an option. Go for traditional Buffalo, and steer away from flavors that include barbecue sauce, honey, or any sugary glaze. As a general rule of thumb, you want to avoid anything too sticky. And yes, ranch and blue cheese dressing are fine — just don’t overdo it.
Warning: Vegetables can be deceptive. Don’t order fried zucchini or onion rings, despite the fact that there's a vegetable in there — somewhere. And carrots have more sugar than you think, so stick with celery with those wings.
Many salads will work on this diet since they're usually high in greens and protein. The only trick is how you dress it.
There are several go-to salads in town for a low-carb diet. Check out the California Protein Cobb at Café Zupas; the Cheeseburger Salad off the Texaz Grill lunch menu; or the Asado Chicken Salad at Otro Café, and most any salad from George's Kitchen. You can also consider adding salmon, a fantastic protein source, to an otherwise plain salad.
Here’s what to avoid when it comes to your greens: croutons, tortilla strips, candied walnuts, and any sugary salad dressings. Oil-based dressings get the job done and have fewer carbs. Try not to fall for “low-fat” dressings either, as that normally means more carbs. And though the plating is usually beautiful, avoid salads dressed with fruit.
Burgers are a great way to stick to a low-carb diet if you know how to order. Become familiar with asking your server for a fries substitution, no bun, and something prepared “as a wrap.”
Plenty of burger joints in town will wrap it up for you. Try the lettuce-wrapped Delux Burger at Delux, or just ask for “no bun” when ordering at Harvey’s Wineburger, The Grind, and The Chuckbox in Tempe. Even chain spots like In-N-Out Burger, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and Smashburger offer lettuce or burger bowl options.
You can also ask to substitute fries with a side salad, vegetables, cottage cheese, or if the menu is a la carte, leave a side off altogether. When dressing your burger, avoid starchy red onions and sugary tomatoes. Use condiments like hot sauce, mustards, anything under two carbs per serving — so again, no ketchup.
Take out or sit down, express or fine dining, Asian-style eateries provide some fantastic choices for protein. There are two simple rules you have to follow: Steer clear of anything breaded (there goes the orange chicken, sorry) and forget rice and lo mein even exist.
At Pho Thanh, get the lemongrass beef or chicken, and ask for steamed vegetables instead of rice when ordering. Take home the Mongolian beef from Little Szechuan in Tempe, and ask for extra vegetables for a small up-charge. There's also the Nam coconut lettuce wrap at Smile Lao Thai.
Vegetables instead of rice runs $2 extra at Asian Cafe Express in Mesa, which nicely compliment the kung pao chicken. If you’re undecided on protein, fish always has the lowest carbs, so go for the kung pao shrimp at Chen and Wok, and hold the rice.
Pro tip: Avoid teriyaki anything.
You’re thinking, “Yeah, I’m so sure you can eat Italian while cutting carbs.” First of all, your attitude is poor, because you absolutely can indulge in some staple Italian dishes when low-carbing it.
A go-to is the Low-Carb Pizza Bowl at Venezia's Pizzeria, which has locations in north Phoenix, Tempe, Gilbert, northeast Mesa, and east Mesa. A pizza bowl is pretty much just that, a pizza in a bowl without the dough, with your choice of toppings. Choose specialty bowls like the Diavolo Pizza Bowl a combination of grilled chicken, bacon, jalapenos, and onions, with the restaurant's signature spicy pizza sauce. You can also create your own, choosing one to four proteins and one to three veggies. Toppings include spinach, broccoli, green olives, and of course, pepperoni. Tomato sauce typically contains sugar, however, so use it sparingly.
And of course, cauliflower-crust pizza is all the rage now (thank goodness). There's a whole section devoted to it in our cauliflower dining guide, but a go-to is from Upper Crust Pizza Patio & Wine Bar.
This is another easy one, as Mexican food generally comes with lots of protein, vegetables, cheese, and spices. You can probably predict the rules for this category: no tortillas, Spanish rice, taco shells, or chips.
For a quick lunch or dinner, head to any of the “‘bertos,” i.e. Filibertos, Juliobertos, Rolibertos, Eribertos, and Alibertos. Order a carne asada or pollo asado burrito, and ask for no tortilla — which results in a container of guacamole, vegetables, and protein. Avoid refried beans at first, or any lentils for that matter, and anything with potato in it. Taco salads are good, if you can ignore the crunchy shell bowl.
Many Mexican-style eateries offer the option of ordering burritos as a bowl right on the menu. Cocina 10 at Crescent Ballroom, offers this, and turns out a pretty great carne asada burrito bowl. Ask them to hold the rice of course. Just avoid the low-fat sour cream. Again, low fat often means higher carbs.
A go-to side is the simple garden salad, which you're often able to substitute for fries. Some other obvious options include standard steamed vegetables like broccoli, squash, zucchini, and the assorted kind. Any time cauliflower is imitating mashed potatoes, go for it. Any time something comes on a bed of slaw, you can eat that, too.
A great example of a creative and carb-diet-friendly side is the Broccoli & Cauliflower Cheese Bake at Cornish Pasty Co., which has multiple locations throughout the Valley. Chunky florets of broccoli and cauliflower swim in a bowl of cheddar cheese and come encased by a toasty exterior of baked cheese (and their salads are amazing, too).
It’s tough giving up pasta, bread, full-flavored soda, and whatever it is you’re trying to evade, so you’re going to need low-carb snacks — and lots of them. Some options include cheese, almonds, beef jerky, and pickles. But before you head off to the grocery store, we do encourage you to keep it local.
There's many a farmers market in this city offering local nuts, beef jerky, pickles, cheese, and more. Just keep an eye out when strolling along. And don't forget the hot sauce.
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Alcohol can be high in carbs and calories, but if you do want to indulge, we have a few recommendations to keep the carbs low. Clear alcohol is the go-to: Tequila and vodka have fewer carbs than beer, wine, and some other spirits. An easy order is vodka with club soda. Dick’s Hideaway makes a mean vodka club — though it's hard to mess that up most anywhere you go.
Beer drinkers, Four Peaks Brewing Co. offers a low-carb Brut IPA. The extra-dry IPA has hints of everything from mixed berries to melon and white wine at five grams of carbs and 6.7 percent ABV. And at any sports bar, ask for a Michelob Ultra first, with your second choice being a pale or blonde ale. Zipps Sports Grill offers 32-ounce Michelob Ultras for those so inclined.
Just be sure to avoid mixers like fruit juices and tonic water — yes, tonic water — as these are full of sugar.