Baja Fresh Mexican Grill

1468 Union Tpke. New Hyde Park, NY 516-354-2252

Baja Fresh Mexican Grill in New Hyde Park.

(Credit: Ian J. Stark)

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Type: Mexican, Tex-Mex, Chain restaurants Price range: $ (Inexpensive) Description:

Preparing fresh ingredients with a light hand is the operative principle behind this franchise chain offering a Mexican-inspired menu of burritos, tacos, salads, "bowls" and quesadillas. A salsa bar allows you to customize everything

Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

With much of the blame for an overweight America falling on the fast-food industry, the opening of Long Island's first Baja Fresh Mexican Grill in Lake Success comes as a hopeful sign of a trend shift. Here, the food is fresh and prepared to order, most of it grilled. A "lighter" menu even lists calories as well as fat, fiber and protein grams.

The first thing I looked for on the menu -- and, to my delight, found -- was a fish taco, a staple in California (where the chain originated) but rare in these parts. Served on a small, soft corn tortilla, it's made with lightly breaded tilapia or red snapper, topped with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and a mayonnaise-y dressing. So good. Of the three other soft tacos offered, I preferred the steak and the shrimp to the chicken, which tends to dryness.

Overcooking marred the otherwise fine chicken fajitas, grilled boneless poultry strips, peppers and onions, served with a peppy pico de gallo, a bright guacamole and a choice of flour or corn tortillas. There's extra wattage to be had at the salsa bar. I favor the medium-spicy, smoky chipotle sauce.

From the "lighten up" menu, enchiladas verano featured corn tortillas enfolding grilled chicken, peppers, chiles and onions, topped with salsa verde and a little cheese, rice and beans, and pico de gallo on the side. At only 580 calories, it makes a satisfying meal. A vegetarian "bare burrito," sans tortilla, comes in a bowl and weighs in at 560 calories. Made with grilled vegetables, rice and beans, lettuce, pico de gallo and salsa baja, it's another winner. But my favorite -- at only 180 calories -- is the shrimp ensalata, grilled shrimp over romaine lettuce, pico de gallo and salsa verde, with tomato, shaved cheese and grilled scallions. A true low-cal find.

Of course, you could forget nutritional considerations. The behemoth burrito "dos manos," supposedly serves two but, in my view, could feed three or four. It's a heavy affair made with steak and several other ingredients, including a surfeit of rice and beans. Pass on it and get, instead, a cheese enchilada topped with red or green salsa. I ordered mine with green salsa and got red instead; still, it was super. They also make a great chicken quesadilla with Jack cheese, served with that addictive guacamole. Not weight-watching food, but a worthy lapse.

Most diet gurus would disapprove of the tostada salad, a hard shell of flour tortilla filled with a mix of greens with beans, guacamole, sour cream and grilled chicken or steak. But order the baja ensalada -- romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, tortilla strips, pico de gallo and fat-free salsa verde -- and you'll surely win favor with the food police.

Baja Fresh looks to be a surefire hit. One weekday afternoon, I waited 20 minutes on line to place my order, another 10 for my number to be called. Fast food? Perhaps not. But fresh, healthful and inexpensive, without question.

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Baja Fresh Mexican Grill 1468 Union Tpke., New Hyde Park

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