Rita’s Catering doubles as heart-healthy Mexican eatery

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Those who have attended formal gatherings and special events at the El Cajon Elks Lodge are likely to be familiar with Rita’s Catering. The in-house food service enterprise provides dining options ranging from full-course sit-down dinners to buffet grazing stations, including salad bars, taco bars and mashed potato martini tables. Rita’s Catering also serves weekday lunches for Elks and their lodge guests, and lodge dinners on Monday and Friday evenings.

Those who have attended formal gatherings and special events at the El Cajon Elks Lodge are likely to be familiar with Rita’s Catering. The in-house food service enterprise provides dining options ranging from full-course sit-down dinners to buffet grazing stations, including salad bars, taco bars and mashed potato martini tables. Rita’s Catering also serves weekday lunches for Elks and their lodge guests, and lodge dinners on Monday and Friday evenings.

What not so many people know is that anyone can enjoy Rita’s food at a strip mall storefront casual dining spot. The choices available there for diners are delicious and nutritious, from healthy to healthier to heart-healthy Mexican food, prepared according to authentic Mexican style dishes.

Rita Aguilar, owner of Rita’s Catering, sat down for an interview recently to discuss her business background and her less-familiar restaurant.

“We don’t advertise,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar began in the catering business in 1989. At the same time, she opened a restaurant at the intersection of 2nd Street and Main in the downtown commercial area of El Cajon. Her association with the Elks Lodge dates back to 2002.

Aguilar shuttered her restaurant a little more than three years ago because of rising rental costs. In January 2015, Aguilar moved her walk-in restaurant business, Rita’s Mexican Food, to the Bostonia area at 1209 N. 2nd Street, #108.

“Many of our former customers were disappointed and thought that we had closed entirely,” Aguilar said. “Some of them are surprised to find that we are still here, just in a different location.

“We’d like people to know that we are here, and we are as good as ever. We have just had an expansion to make the dining room larger. And we’d like people to know that this is a unique dining experience.”

The menu is large for a relatively small eatery, with a variety of meal options, all with healthfulness and dietary selections in mind. The décor is minimalist, with simple, clean tables of different sizes and a big-screen television at the back of the dining area.

“We use boneless, skinless meats and no lard,” Aguilar said. That makes the regular menu items healthier than at most Mexican cafes. The extra-lite menu features several choices denoted with a heart, which meet the American Heart Association guidelines for heart-healthy diets. Aguilar mentioned in particular the turkey chili that can be ordered.

She noted further that members of the local police department, fire department and California Highway Patrol stop by to eat there.

Aguilar brought out a set of sampler plates for tasting, to show the wide-ranging food choices that diners can select. The quesadilla appetizer to start featured easy-to-eat wedges of flaky flour tortilla with melted cheese inside. The light cooking oil used in the preparation, together with the light melted cheese, make this quesadilla different from the usual quesadillas offered elsewhere, which are often greasy.

The “tiny grilled fish tacos” are delicious and unlike those served at most other local Mexican restaurants. The pieces of fish in each taco are small, flaked and very moist, heaped into a tortilla, topped with optional guacamole as an addition and seasoned with a mix of fresh cilantro and chopped onion that makes the flavor combination “pop.” The carne asada taco with guacamole is also nicely prepared and seasoned, as is the grilled chicken taco.

Salsas available for extra spiciness include red versions and salsa verde.

For a larger meal possibility, a fajitas combination plate is always an option. Aguilar recommends the shrimp fajitas. The combination plate includes seasoned rice, pinto beans topped with melted cheese, and choice of tortillas. The plump shrimp arrived nestled in a bed of sautéed green and red bell peppers and onions. As with the grilled fish, the shrimp were very moist and succulent, well seasoned and out of the ordinary.

Dessert could be bunuelos, but it is the churros that catch the eye. They were amazingly light, not overly sweet, and with a crisp outer shell surrounding a tender, pleasantly doughy interior.

The portion sizes are good. The prices for meal items are comparable to those at similar Mexican cafes, and they provide excellent value for the quality and healthiness of the recipes.

More about Rita’s Mexican Food restaurant can be explored at www.RitasMexicanFood.com. Information is also available by phoning (619) 441-0756. The restaurant is open from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. daily. A satellite office for Rita’s Catering is next door.

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