Red Light, Green Light: The Healthiest and Unhealthiest Picks for Dining Out, USC Edition

USC, my alma mater, is located just south of downtown Los Angeles. Bordered by the 110 and the 10 freeways and neighboring the northern edge of South Central L.A., it’s certainly not among LA’s best – or healthiest – culinary establishments Figueroa is dotted with fast food joints like Panda Express, Fatburger, and McDonald’s, and the nearby University Village has a love-it-or-hate-it food court serving up ethnic cuisines. Luckily, there are several local restaurants lovingly cherished by USC students (a 2 AM Chano’s run is practically required before graduation) – and each of their menus has at least a couple healthy choices. Read on to find your best- and worst – bets at each of USC’s late-night or Leavey marathon standbys.


Red Light: Chano’s Fries
Instead of piling heaps of ground beef, refried beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, cheese, and sour cream on a bed of chips, Chano’s serves their nachos dishes on a huge, greasy mound of French fries. With five forms of fat – including lard-soaked beans and fat-packed ground beef – this dish can easily pack in more than 1500 calories.
Yellow Light: Soft Tostada
Unlike most tostadas, Chano’s Soft Tostada isn’t fried – cutting down on a bulk of the unhealthy calories. And unlike a stuffed burrito, a tostada can only hold so many toppings – so its damage is generally limited to under 500 calories. Ask for extra lettuce and tomatoes to pump up your daily vegetable intake.
Green Light: Chicken Taco
Instead of refined flour tortillas, these tacos are built on two corn tortillas, which have half the fat and calories and one fourth of the sodium. Stuffed with chicken, fresh salsa, and guacamole, there’s little room to go wrong here – and the healthy fats in avocados aid in the absorption of lycopene from the tomatoes.

Manas Indian Cuisine

Red Light: Lamb Korma
Most lamb cuts used in Indian cooking come from the leg or shoulder – two of the fattiest parts. And Manas’ Korma is a creamy onion sauce mixed with cashews and almonds – making this dish heavy in the fat department. Even worse, there isn’t a single vegetable to add some redeeming fiber to this dish.
Yellow Light: Manas Special Curry
A mix of vegetables, lemongrass, and spices in a coconut-based curry, this pick has some virtues and some evils. On the one hand, it’s low in protein, and its heavy use of coconut makes it relatively high in calories and saturated fat. On the other hand, studies show that the saturated fats in coconut are actually healthy  – boosting energy and metabolism. Additionally, the vegetables give it a huge fiber boost, promoting satiety.

Green Light: Tandoori Chicken
Tandoori chicken, marinated in protein-packed yogurt and antioxidant-spiked spices like turmeric, is a great choice on any menu. Low in fat – most of it drips off in the oven – tandoori dishes get their deep, smokey flavor from quickly roasting in a high temperature clay oven.

Pasta Roma

Red Light: Calzone All Meat
Pasta Roma’s Calzone All Meat, with mozzarella, ricotta, sausage, pepperoni, and meatballs, is like eating an entire pizza yourself – but worse. Because the calzone isn’t limited to a delicate balance of toppings like a pizza is, Pasta Roma can stuff in a ridiculous amount of toppings. And they’re not even healthy toppings – they’re packed with sodium and saturated fat.
Yellow Light: Ravioli (Beef, Chicken, or Cheese with Tomato, Cream, or Pink Sauce)
Depending on how your order your ravioli, this could be a hit or miss. An Alfredo sauce can pack more than five times the calories and four times the saturated fat as a tomato-based sauce. And ravioli stuffed with cheese only adds more saturated fat; pick beef – or even better, chicken – to add leaner protein.
Green Light: Linguine with Mixed Seafood
The seafood in pasta dishes is often steamed, relieving your dish of unwanted oil and butter. Shellfish, including mussels, clams, shrimp, and scallops, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and iron, and add low-fat protein to an otherwise carb-heavy dish. Just skip out on the extra garlic knots that Pasta Roma doles out: they could add more than 400 calories of quick-burning, insulin-spiking carbs.

Jacks N Joe

Red Light: WTF?! Pancakes
You’d probably be better off ordering dessert. This dish takes six large pancakes – made with refined flour, whole milk, and sugar – and tops them with sweetened cream cheese, berries, and powdered sugar. Pancakes aren’t inherently unhealthy, but with sugary toppings and huge portion sizes, this is the last thing you want to start your day.
Yellow Light: Pineapple Mango Smoothie
Compared to stacked pancakes and decadent French toast, it sounds virtuous – but it certainly won’t fuel you through your morning classes. Pineapples and mangoes are among the fruits highest in sugar, and vanilla yogurt can contain more than 30 grams of sugar (that’s 7.5 teaspoons!) per six ounces. This smoothie might be relatively low in calories, but it’ll also spur a quick rise and fall in blood sugar – leaving you hungry and grumpy soon after breakfast.

Green Light: Eat Your Veggies Omelette
With tomatoes, peppers, spinach, onions, mushrooms, and three eggs, this breakfast is the perfect blend of fiber and protein. Recent research has shown that 350 calories of protein- and fiber-rich fare is the best bet to stay full and energized throughout the morning. Sub the JNJ potatoes for a side of fruit to cut even more calories and fat.

Soy Japanese Grill

Red Light: Chicken Katsu
Chicken Katsu is essentially the Japanese version of fried chicken; in this dish, breaded and deep-fried chicken cutlets are paired with a mound of rice, salad, and miso soup. The chicken alone can pack in more than 500 calories and 30 grams of fat; add to that a typical restaurant portion of white rice and an oily dressing, and the meal could easily surpass 1,200 calories.
Yellow Light: Salmon Plate
Provided you don’t finish the four or more servings of rice on the Salmon Plate, this is a relatively safe choice. The salmon is charbroiled, a method of cooking that uses minimal oil and better, and it comes with two salads. Ask for the dressing and teriyaki sauce on the side though: most restaurant versions are packed with oil, sugar, and salt.
Green Light: Washington Roll
Soy’s Washington Roll is a California Roll topped with protein-packed salmon. A typical California Roll carries 255 calories; the salmon sashimi topping adds another 140 calories and is rich in omega-3 fatty acids which promote cardiovascular health. Paired with Soy’s daily salad (dressing on the side!) and an order of edemame, this is a light and tasty Japanese meal.


Red Light: Trojan Horse (Vodka, Rum, Gin, Orange Juice, Pineapple Juice, Traddies Sour Mix, Float of Brandy)
This drink – served in a 27 ounce schooner – is automatically the worst pick on the spirits menu due to its colossal size. With four different types of liquor (each 1.5 ounce shot of alcohol packs 97 calories), two sugar-packed juices, and sour mix, this drink could easily surpass 1,300 calories – more than two-thirds of your recommended daily calorie intake.
Yellow Light: The Tank (Bacardi 151, Wild Turkey, and coke)
This cocktail is essentially a whiskey-spiked rum and coke. There are about 100 empty calories in 8 ounces of coke, but even diet coke is a bad choice: studies show that drinking diet soda is correlated with wider waistlines.
Green Light: Vodka Martini
Even though it’s not on the spirits menu, any bar can whip up a vodka martini. This is your best choice for a night out, simply because it’s not bogged down by mixers and excess calories. Spice it up with lemon slices or olives.


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