Atkins, low-carb, keto — 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: Eat more protein, vegetables, cheeses, 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. It includes pointers like ordering tips, drive-thru tricks, and restaurant suggestions throughout the Valley.
Turning your morning meal low-carb is pretty easy as breakfast usually involves a variety of proteins. Go for bacon and eggs, omelets, vegetables, and cottage cheese. If you’re being really good, go a la carte — i.e., “May I order a side of sausage, a side of bacon, and two eggs?” And avoid fruit; the sugar can halt your progress.
Most breakfast spots in town will accommodate these orders. Try Ranch House Grille, Over Easy, Harlow's Café, and of course, Matt’s Big Breakfast. Any location of U.S. Egg and 5 & Diner will do as well.
But if your first meal must include something soft and chewy, try the high-protein, low-carb bagels and bread from Chompie's. Get them at Chompie's and Sprouts locations. More low-carb, high-protein bread is found via Keto Kitchen Confections. And Mediterra Bakehouse has created a keto-friendly loaf made with King Arthur Baking Keto Wheat Flour high in protein (12 grams per slice) and low in carbs (5 grams per slice) called the Sunny Flax Keto Bread.
And to drink? 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 where you'll find some keto-friendly ingredients.
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 pistachios – just don’t mess with the ciabatta. AZ88 in Scottsdale offers water chestnuts marinated and wrapped in Wisconsin Nueske bacon.
Wings are also an option (and a big one for yours truly). 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. Or just roll with a dry rub-style wing. 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 wing orders.
There are several go-to salads in town. There's of course The Original Chop from Citizen Public House and The Gladly — a.k.a. Arizona's state salad. And check out the California Protein Cobb at Café Zupas, the Cortado Salad at Otro Café, and most any salad from George's Kitchen.
Many salads will work on this diet since they're usually high in greens and protein. The only trick is how you dress it. Here’s what to avoid: 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 in lettuce for you. Or just ask for “no bun” when ordering at Harvey’s Wineburger or The Chuckbox in Tempe. There's even a Cheeseburger Salad at Texaz Grill.
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 upcharge. 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 complements the kung pao chicken. If you’re undecided on protein, fish always has the fewest carbs, so go for the kung pao shrimp at Chen and Wok, and hold the rice.
Pro tip: Avoid teriyaki anything.
Push aside your thoughts of baguettes and pastries — French cuisine can be keto-friendly too. Or so they promise over at Sapiens Paleo Kitchen. The Scottsdale eatery offers French cuisine via a 100-percent paleo and gluten-free menu. Helpfully named menu items include the Keto Burger and the Paleo Meatloaf, while other entrees include French rabbit stew, Sapiens Duck and duck confit, free-range chicken, and the Vegetable Napoleon. Plus, every entree has a keto-friendly substitute option that will swap out any vegetable high in sugars (your potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.).
Non-dairy desserts are also available, including a clafoutis made with almond flour.
Pita Jungle released a menu of keto and paleo-friendly dishes this summer, and they are as impressive as they are colorful. They include the Super Green Nordic Salmon Bowl, meaning wood-fired Norwegian salmon topping a bed of Tuscan kale, red and green cabbage, peppers, fennel, garlic, lemon remoulade, fresh mint, and dill. In other words, a super green julienne. Other options include the Shaved Korean Beef Cauliflower Tostada and the Avocado Cauliflower Tostada.
But overall, most Mediterranean and/or Greek eateries will offer a Greek salad or protein-heavy dish. Just know what to request to be left off the dish (i.e. pita bread).
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 all over the Valley. A pizza bowl is pretty much just that, 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, jalapeños, 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 and definitely Zesty Zzeeks Pizza & Wings.
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, rice, 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, or any lentils for that matter, and anything with potato. Taco salads are good if you can go without the crunchy shell bowl.
Many Mexican-style eateries offer a menu option of ordering burrito bowls. Cocina 10 at Crescent Ballroom does and turns out it makes a pretty great carne asada burrito bowl. Ask them to hold the rice of course. 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 in 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 and 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.
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 a vodka with club soda. Dick’s Hideaway makes a mean vodka club — though it's hard to mess that up most anywhere you go. Just be sure to avoid mixers like fruit juices and tonic water — unless it's diet tonic water.
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. Four Peaks also has the Gilt Lifter. Other local, low-calorie beers include the Arizona Light Lager and Low-Lo Hazy IPA, both from Huss Brewing Co., and the Day Drinker Lager from Pedal Haus Brewery.
Finally, Zipps Sports Grill offers 32-ounce Michelob Ultras for those so inclined.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 13, 2016. It was updated on January 27, 2021.
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