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More and more chain restaurants are entering the frozen food market, and to date that's not good news. All you have to do is look at the restaurant reviews we've done here at DrGourmet.com to see why: sodium. It's bad enough that chain restaurant foods tend to be appallingly high in sodium in their restaurant meals, but that taste for salty foods is carried through into their frozen selections. Marie Callender's, for examples. Of the 22 varieties of single-serving frozen meals that are under 500 calories, only five of them were reported to have 700 milligrams of sodium per serving or less, and several have over 1,000 milligrams of sodium. Each. (We found two of the under-700mg group at our local Winn-Dixie and will review them next week.)
Chili's also tends toward the salty. Of the even dozen single-serving meals listed on their web site, only three have less than 700mg sodium. Two of those we reviewed for today; the third variety, Cheesy Chicken Pasta Florentine, wasn't available at the store. (Again, if we find it, we'll review it.)
For today the tasting panel chose the option with the higher sodium level, figuring that if they were going to taste something excessively salty, we could at least get the worst option out of the way first.
The Mango Chicken with Rice (360 calories, 660mg sodium, 2g fiber) has a savory, almost cheesey scent with a sweetish overtone of mango and orange. The "Southwest style rice blend" combines white rice with a scattering of black beans, bits of red bell pepper, a few kernels of yellow corn, and a scattering of minced parsley. To our surprise, the rice is not overcooked, but it does remind us of "Uncle Ben's Converted Rice,' with every grain distinct to the bite. The panel agreed that this result was far better than overdone mush, considering the amount of sauce.
We expected the sauce to be overly sweet, considering the addition of three kinds of citrus juice to the mango chunks and mango puree listed in the ingredients, but to our surprise it wasn't cloyingly so - and the red bell pepper's brightness cuts through the sweetness quite handily. The black beans in the rice are firm and add a bit of texture, and the half-dozen pieces of chicken are well cooked and varyingly sized and shaped as if they were truly cut by hand from a piece of chicken rather than pressed and cut by a machine. The down side of this meal is not that it tastes salty (which it does not), but that it is less spicy than we expected. That didn't stop the panel from giving this meal a thumbs up.
The next meal was the Island Chicken & Rice (370 calories, 620mg sodium, 2g fiber). The package describes the rice as a "blend of pineapple & Southwest style vegetables," and if that sounds familiar, it should: this is the same rice, black beans, red bell peppers, and corn mix as the Mango Chicken with Rice, with the addition of pineapple chunks and diced poblano peppers.
The meal has a fine jerk scent redolent of tamarind, ginger, brown sugar, cloves, and cinnamon. While the sauce is possibly sweeter than that of the Mango Chicken, it has a pleasant afterburn - more along the spice level we expected of the Mango Chicken. Similar chunks of hand-cut-looking chicken have a nice jerk flavor on their own.
Of the two, we preferred the Island Chicken because of the overall spicier flavor, although a couple panel members felt that the pineapple made the meal too sweet for their taste. Their taste, however, might not be yours: the rest of the panel felt that the spicy jerk flavor balanced the sweetness of the pineapple fairly well. The biggest drawback to these meals (other than the price: about $3.50 each) is the low fiber: only 2 grams in each meal, which could have been easily increased by using brown rice instead of white rice. Still, surprisingly good (and not too salty) meals from Chili's At Home.
First posted: January 30, 2015