Cinco de Mayo on Keto: 12 Super-Tasty Cal-Mex Recipes

Shish Kabob: Chicken Chunks, Green Chili, Onions
Cal-Mex Cuisine
is perfect for low-carb celebrations!

Cal-Mex Cuisine takes advantage of local, fresh, wholesome ingredients. With just a few adaptions, like adding green chili squares to your shish kabob, you can serve up a tasty ketogenic meal that's perfect for your next Cinco de Mayo Fiesta or barbeque!

Mexican food is very popular in the southwestern portion of the United States, as well as other areas that have a large Mexican population.

For us, Cinco de Mayo was a big deal.

Mexican restaurants existed in every major city in Southern California, and they offered a large variety of Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex cuisine. Mexican traditions like flavorful tacos, spicy enchiladas, and wet burritos were found on the menu of even budget-minded folks, like us, every single week.

It's culture there. It's how I grew up.

Today, most of those carby entrees and side dishes I used when raising my kids no longer show up on our dinner plate, but thanks to the wonders of Cal-Mex cuisine, even low carbers can still enjoy a marvelously tasty Cinco de Mayo fiesta.

When I was still married to my ex and funds were short, we got through the rough spots by eating plenty of tacos or enchiladas every single night. Mexican food was cheap, filling, and tasty. Enchiladas, Spanish rice, and refried beans were a staple. Tacos with various fillings showed up on the plate at least twice a week.

It was a given.

We had it so often, in fact, that my oldest son refuses to eat most Mexican food today. He literally hates it now. At the time, Mexican fare was more hearty than Kraft mac-and-cheese or Top Ramen soup, so I served it a lot. Although, we did eat those things too.

However, what do you do when you're on Keto, a diabetic, or gluten free and want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

What do you do when you're craving Mexican food and traditional forms of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas no longer work for you?

How do you satisfy that craving for Mexican cuisine or enjoy a nice Cinco de Mayo celebration once restricting carbohydrates has become a lifestyle?

You let Cal-Mex cuisine show you the way!

Pinterest Image: Shrimp-Vegetable Skillet

What is Cinco de Mayo?

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not a big deal.

It is celebrated in the state of Puebla where the famous battle of 1862 between French armies and a group of indigenous Mexicans took place, but it's extremely localized.

A few additional areas do join in the celebration, but it's not the extravagant event that it is in Southern California and other heavily Mexican populated areas across the United States.

Cinco de Mayo Celebration Singers
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a
small, local celebration.

It is more popular in Southern California and
across the U.S. where the Mexican population is heavy.
Within Mexico, festivities include:
  • recreations of the battle
  • military parades
  • lots of authentic Mexican food
But since it isn't a national holiday, traditional life doesn't change. Mexico's victory over France in the Battle of Puebla helped to rally the troops, but it didn't give Mexicans the independence they sought.

That would come six years later.

Mexican Couple Dressed for Celebration
Cinco de Mayo is NOT
Mexico's Independence Day

After our own civil war, the U.S. government was in a better position to put political pressure on France as well as offer financial support to the Mexican military. As a result of U.S. intervention, France withdrew its troops. That move paved the way for Maximilian's capture and execution.

Like here in the U.S., Independence Day in Mexico isn't about the final victory over Maximilian.

They had already declared their independence from the Spanish government 50 years prior to the Battle of Puebla, in 1810, and prior to Napoleon's move against them.

Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16, the anniversary of Costilla's call to arms against the Spanish government. It isn't Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo was a victory over Napoleon III who was attempting to create an empire out of the Mexican territory.

In his lust for power, Napoleon uprooted President Juarez and sent the Mexican government running into retreat, but the Mexican people were not as easy to control as Napoleon supposed. Many of them went to Puebla out of loyalty to their beloved President.

Even though they were outnumbered three to one by French troops, they were able to withstand Napoleon's attack on that area with very little loss of life.

This gave Mexicans the strength and determination they needed to stand their ground against the French and endure the battle until the U.S. was able to help them.

Cinco de Mayo Celebrations Can Be Low Carb

Kids Dressed Up in Traditional Mexican Dance Costumes
In Southern California, it's traditional for schools to put
on Cinco de Mayo presentations for the parents.

In the U.S., it's different.

Parties, celebrations, and family gatherings are typical of a Cinco de Mayo celebration.

While areas of the U.S. heavily populated with Mexicans or Mexican-Americans usher in the festivities with:
  • parades
  • mariachi music
  • dancing
  • pinatas filled with candy
  • and lots of Mexican food and beer
the holiday's popularity isn't localized to just the Southwestern region of the U.S.

According to the History Channel, Cinco de Mayo is popular as far away as Chicago. It's seen as a statement of Mexican heritage and culture, and therefore, lots of Americans want to join in on the fun.

This might seem impossible when you're restricting carbohydrates, but it's really not.

Although Tex-Mex cuisine is what most people think of when referring to Mexican food, Cal-Mex cuisine doesn't have to be high in carbs. This makes them the perfect choice for those with blood glucose issues. Plus, dishes can be adapted to easily fit within the rules of  low-carb diet.

You just need to put on your cap of creativity.

That's how Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex food was born in the first place. Tex-Mex chefs took authentic Mexican dishes and began twisting them by using American ingredients to fit American tastes. You can do the same thing using low carb ingredients.

For example, flour tortillas are rare in Mexico except close to the American border, but Americans love their white-flour tortillas. More so than corn. So, restaurants used that craving for wheat and cheese to their advantage. They came up with something entirely new.

Luckily, California residents are not as attracted to the greasy, high-carb, heavily processed foods presented to the public in Mexican restaurants across the nation. In California, when I lived there, Mexican food was quite different.

High-class restaurants, such as the Alcapulco, focused more on fresh foods and often featured:
  • fish dishes
  • lean beef
  • avocados
  • fresh salsa
  • fresh herbs
  • lots of organic, locally-grown vegetables
Low carbers or those eating gluten free can do the same thing.

12 Cal-Mex Low-Carb Dishes that Will Knock Your Socks Off!

1. Seviche Appetizer with Avocado

In California, no matter what Mexican restaurant my now-ex took me to, he always ordered a Seviche appetizer to start off the meal.

Seviche is chopped raw fish that has been marinated in lemon and/or lime juice for several hours. After the citrus juice has cooked and flavored the fish, the juice is drained off and the fish is mixed with:
  • chopped red onions
  • minced jalapeno
  • diced avocado
  • and lots of cilantro
The lemon juice actually cooks the fish. This dish is not really raw, although it fits within the parameters of a raw diet. Make sure that if you try this, you use high-quality fish that has not been mishandled.

Some restaurants mixed it with pico de galo because it was easier. Pico de galo is fresh salsa, which is made with chopped Roma tomatoes instead of a cooked tomato sauce. It can be kicked up a notch by adding some chopped cucumber along with the tomatoes.

2. Salsa with Cheese Chips or Pork Rinds

Two Individual Serving Bowls of Homemade Salsa
Salsa is versatile and can turn a plain
Mexican dish into something that is packed
with flavor. Toss it on your omelet or
serve with cheese chips and pork rinds.

In every Mexican restaurant, you'll find that as soon as you are seated, the waiter or waitress will bring you a bowl of some type of salsa and corn chips. It doesn't matter if you are eating Cal-Mex food or Tex-Mex food; the meal always starts with salsa and chips.

And this is true everywhere, even places that advertise to only offer authentic Mexican Cuisine.

When restaurants who wanted to strive for authenticity tried to eliminate the chips and salsa from the menu, since they are never served that way in Mexico, customers got so mad they threatened never to come back again if chips and salsa were not returned to the menu immediately.

While customers haven't complained about restaurants switching from lard to vegetable oils when frying, they love their salsa and won't even consider a Mexican meal without corn chips.

Corn tortillas are not high in carbs compared to other breads. Mission (the brand we use) is rolling them thinner these days, so the carb count has dropped from 23 carbs for two tortillas down to 20 carbs for the pair. With 3 grams of fiber, those tortillas are now 8-1/2 net carbs per tortilla (instead of 10).

Those 8-1/2 net carbs are not that bad if you're making something that requires only one or two tortillas, especially if you're doing Atkins 40.

Huge Bowl of Homemade Fried Corn Chips
Chips are carby due to the amount
you're used to eating. 

However, a bowl of chips probably contains several tortillas per person since each tortilla is usually cut into 8 wedges before frying.

That means each tortilla chip comes in at 1 net carb each!

A more Keto-friendly option would be these cheese chips from Linda's Low Carb Recipes website that are whipped up in the microwave. You use real American cheese slices, so they puff up into a delicious, low-carb cracker. Crunchy and good.

Even a handful of pork rinds is great with the homemade salsa recipe you'll find in our archives.

Just don't try to fry up low-carb tortillas.

I don't know how those tortillas are made, but they don't fry up like traditional flour tortillas do.

You'll also want to exert caution if you're a diabetic or have blood glucose control issues. Tomatoes can spike your blood sugar if you're sensitive to the sugar in vegetables.

3. Super Tostada with Sour Cream and Guacamole

Super Tostada with Beef, Lettuce, Tomato, Sour Cream, Guacamole

A tostada is simply a super-large taco salad that is served either on a flat hard-shell corn tortilla or in a huge flour tortilla shaped like a bowl.

These luscious salads can get quite creative.

My favorite version is served in a gigantic flour-tortilla bowl. There was a smear of refried beans in the bottom of the shell, then it was topped with:
  • pork carnitas
  • shredded lettuce
  • chopped tomatoes
  • sliced olives
  • chunks of avocado
  • grated cheddar cheese
  • sour cream
Salsa or a nice Ranch dressing was ladled over the top.

On Keto, you simply leave the floury bowl behind. There is plenty of food there, so you won't feel deprived. 

4. Shrimp and Vegetables

Huge Platter of Shrimp with Assorted Freshly Grilled Colorful Vegetables
As you can see in this photo,
Cal-Mex food is naturally low carb cuisine. 
It uses lots of grilled meats and vegetables.

Cal-Mex Cuisine is loaded with meats and fresh vegetables, and this gluten-free grilled shrimp and vegetable combo is no exception. Pick out your favorite fresh vegetables, but think about combining a wide variety of colors to make the dish really stand out.
  • bright sweet red or yellow peppers
  • purple onions
  • green broccoli flowets
  • green or yellow wax beans
  • zucchini wedges
  • sliced mushrooms
  • a few cobs of baby corn
  • bright orange carrots
Don't be shy. You could even add cabbage to this, the the nappa type with the curly leaves.

Traditionally, it's grilled on a cast iron flat skillet, but you could also grill the meat and vegetables on an indoor grill. Flavor it with minced garlic and some garlic-chili sauce, and you'll really wow your guests.

5. Chicken Fajitas

Chicken Fajitas Sauteed in a Skillet
Fajitas can be made by frying the mixture
in a non-stick skillet.

For those who can't handle all of those vegetable carbs above, fajitas makes a great compromise. In fact, fajitas are one of my favorite Mexican meals.

This dish is usually seasoned and then char-broiled in a black cast-iron skillet, the same as the shrimp and vegetables above, but fajitas are heavy on the meat, which makes it a perfect choice for those on Atkins Induction or who have to stick to less than 20 net carbs a day.

The cast iron gives chicken, lean steak, or shrimp a flavor like no other.

Traditionally, the meat, poultry or fish is broiled with sliced onions and assorted colorful sweet bell peppers, but I've also had it served with sauteed mushrooms, sliced black olives, and chunks of Anaheim chili.

Fajitas are normally served in small flour or corn tortillas. If you are not sensitive to gluten or wheat and do fine with low-carb tortillas, one or two will make this meal extra special. Especially, when you load it up with chopped tomatoes, sour cream, and guacamole.

If you can't do low-carb tortillas, simply serve the fajitas in a bowl and garnish with lemon wedges, guacamole or avocado slices, and sour cream. You could even serve the meat over a pile of lettuce or cole slaw.

If you don't want to bother with charring the meat and veggies, you can simply saute them together in a pan. Just marinate the meat in taco seasoning and a little bit of oil-and-vinegar dressing for several hours before cooking.

The secret to super-tender chicken breast?

Sprinkle 1/2 to 1 teaspoon baking soda over the chicken chunks or strips and toss well before adding any seasoning or dressing. Let that marinate for several hours, and you'll end up with super-tender chicken breast.

6. Chili Verde

Most of my life I've always had a garden in the summer. One of the easiest vegetables to grow is tomatillos.

Tomatillo Growing on a plant
These green husk tomatoes make a super-tasty sauce
that you can simmer pork or chicken in.

Tomatillos are sometimes called husk tomatoes because the tomato grows inside of a green papery skin. When the tomato almost fills the skin or the skin starts to burst, the tomato is ready.

Tomatillos can also be found in most grocery stores near the cilantro and other fresh vegetables.

To cook them is super easy.

You simply peel the husk off and drop the tomatillo into boiling water. Allow the tomato to cook in the hot water for several minutes, then drain in a colander. Let them cool. Once cool, toss the tomatoes into the blender or a salsa maker, skin, seeds, and all -- and give it a whirl.

For chili verde:

Cut a pork roast or several pork chops into chunks and dump them into the crock pot or a large skillet. This works for chicken breast as well. Pour the green tomato sauce (the blended, cooked tomatillos) on top of the meat. Add:
  • chopped yellow onions
  • sliced green onions
  • some shredded cilantro
  • and a little minced jalapeno
Basically, what you're doing is making a green salsa.

Cook all of that together, stirring now and then if using a skillet, until the pork is super soft and just beginning to fall apart. Serve the stew in a bowl garnished with sour cream.

7. Mexican Meatballs

Mexican Meat Balls in Chili Sauce
Meatballs are a Keto staple.
Simmer in homemade enchilada sauce
instead of using a maranara.

I love meatballs, and I love enchiladas, so for this dish, I simply combine two of my favorite things together.

Meatballs are easy.

You can't have bread crumbs or cracker crumbs on Keto, but you can easily substitute crushed pork rinds. Pork rinds are gluten free and work great for all types of breading applications. To crush them, I just toss a handful into the blender and then push the pulse button over and over again until they are crushed as fine as I want them.

As an alternative, you could also use Parmesan cheese, the dried type in a can, or some almond flour or meal.

For the meatballs:

Add about 1/2 cup of pork crumbs to a pound of lean ground beef. Mix in:
  • 1 egg
  • 4-ounce can of chopped green chilies
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • salt and pepper to taste
If you have some dried minced onion, you can toss some of that in there too. Form the meat into walnut sized balls and place in a 9 x 13 pan.

In a small bowl, combine:
  • 8-ounce can of tomato sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon Mrs. Dash
  • 1/4 teaspoon Italian seasonings
Mix well. Pour the sauce over the meatballs, and then bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. You can also do this in the crock pot.

Top with some grated pepper-jack cheese and return to the oven just long enough to melt the cheese.

8. Pork Carnitas Burrito Bowl

Pork Carnitas Burrito Bowl Filling
Burrito and Taco Bowls make easy low-carb meals.
Use whatever meats and vegetables you like best.

Burrito and taco bowls are a great way to get the flavor of Mexican cooking without the carbs. It also makes avoiding gluten a snap!

This works for shredded beef cooked in a crock pot, chicken breast cut into strips and then sauteed, or pork cubes that have been tossed with onions and cilantro. You simply serve what you would normally put inside the burrito or a taco in a bowl, then top with a little grated cheese, sour cream, and guacamole.

For a more authentic flavor, simmer a can of black soy beans for 30 minutes to make them softer, then mash with a potato masher to make your own refried beans. Place the smashed beans in the bottom of the bowl, then top with the burrito or taco filling.

While true carnitas are made by deep frying cooked pork cubes, Cal-Mex cooking takes a much simpler route by simply sauting the meat in a non-stick skillet.

Cut one pound of boneless pork into bite-sized pieces. Toss into a frying pan and season with a little cumin, salt, and pepper. Stir-fry the cubes until they are almost cooked through. Add some:
  • chopped onions
  • cubed colorful sweet peppers
  • shredded cilantro
  • a minced jalapeno
  • and a little bit of lemon juice
Continue cooking until the mixture is as done as you like.

Chop an avocado and a roma tomato or two into bite-sized pieces and gently toss it into the pork. Cook for another minute, just long enough to heat the avocado and tomato. Don't over stir this. You want the avocado to stay chunky.

Serve the carnitas in a bowl topped with homemade salsa or pico de galo, a little cheese, and a nice-sized dollop of sour cream.

9. Beef in Red Chili Sauce

This recipe is extremely simple. I used to use it to make the filling for tamales. While masa is off-limits during the weight-loss phase of Keto, the tamale filling is not.

Place one to two pounds of beef cubes in a soup pot or crock pot. This also works for chicken legs or pork. Add:
  • a chopped onion
  • some sliced olives
  • one or two cans of enchilada sauce
Alternatively, you could use the recipe for enchilada sauce in the meatball recipes (number 7) above.

Red chili sauce is traditional and available in most supermarkets in the mexican foods section, but you can use the green sauce if you prefer. Chili verde sauce is best with chicken, while a red chili sauce is better for beef. Pork works well with either type of sauce.

The recipe for the green sauce is the chili verde recipe found in number 6 above.

As the meat cooks, you'll want to add some water if needed. Cook the beef for several hours, until the meat is fall-apart tender. Chicken won't take nearly as long.

To serve, line your bowl with some steamed zucchini slices, then top it with the stew. If you're not a zucchini fan, you can top the stew with some shredded raw cabbage instead. Either way, you'll want to add a wedge of lemon or lime.

You can also drain the liquid and top your beef with some green onions and sour cream.

10. Super Nachos

Platter of Super Nachos: Corn chips with taco meat, cheese, and salsa
Super Nachos are a popular treat, but can get soggy
if you don't eat them fast enough.

The one time I ate a plate of Super Nachos at a Mexican restaurant, they were a soggy mess before getting even half-way through the plate.

But I loved the idea.

While nachos at a baseball game are nothing more than corn chips dipped into a nacho-flavored cheese sauce, Super Nachos takes the idea to a whole new level.

For a Keto version of this:

Start by lining your plate with a layer of those crispy cheese crisp crackers from Linda's site that I linked to in No. 2. Then, top the chips with some mashed black soy beans.

Black soy beans are available at most health foods as well as online. They are produced by Eden foods, so they are organic and GMO-free. Black soy beans taste like regular black beans and are extremely low in carbs due to their huge fiber count, but canned, they are a bit on the crunchy side.

To get around that, simply cook them before serving. That will make them taste more like black beans. If the soy beans are not available, just leave them out.

On top of the chips and beans, add some taco-seasoned ground beef, pork cubes, or chicken strips. Top that with:
  • shredded lettuce
  • chopped tomatoes
  • sliced jalapenos
  • grated cheese
  • and sliced olives
Finish off the masterpiece with a hefty dollop of sour cream and salsa, of course.

11. Marinated Carrots (Pickled Carrots)

Marinated or pickled carrots are a Cal-Mex signature dish.

You'll find them at almost every Mexican restaurant or Mexican fast-food establishment in Southern California. Outside of California, they are practically non-existent I'm told.

These carrots are simple to make and really liven up the plate with a lot of color.

In a large bowl, combine:
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • and sugar substitute to taste
Traditionally, you want enough sweetener to equal about 1/2 cup sugar. If you don't want them that sweet, just sweeten to taste.

Add a pound of cooked carrots, sliced on a diagonal, to the liquid, but not so many that they aren't completely covered. Toss in some:
  • sliced onions
  • jalapeno chunks
  • and a few cooked cauliflower chunks
to make this dish even more extra-special. Allow the carrots to sit in the refrigerator for a couple of days before serving. The longer they marinate, the better they taste.

12. Mexican Posole Soup

Out of all the Mexican dishes I've learned how to make over the years, this posole soup recipe I published at Infobarrel a couple of years ago has to be the best thing I've ever made.

Traditionally, it contains lots of hominy, along with the pork, chilies, and other yummy stuff, but low carbers can simply sub out the hominy for a couple cans of baby corn that have been cut into chunks.

Pot of Baby Corn and Broccoli
Baby corn is
super low in carbohydrates

Baby corn is cobs of corn that begin to grow on the corn stalk at the end of the season. They are severely underdeveloped, so the carb count is extremely low.

You eat the cob and all.

Found in the oriental section of the supermarket, a half-a-cup of these baby corn pieces are only 2 carbs.

A few years ago, hominy was thought to have a lower carb count than corn, but when the produce was retested, the carb count drastically went up. For that reason, it's not appropriate for super low-carb diets.

Don't neglect to add the garnishes to this steaming bowl of soup:
  • shredded cabbage
  • green onions
  • freshly sliced radishes
  • and hot peppers
They really make this soup special, as does a nice squeeze of lime juice. While raw cabbage might sound like a strange accompaniment for hot soup, it is quite good and without it, the flavor of the posole isn't authentic.

Mexican Flavor and Experimentation is the Key

When it comes to adapting Mexican food to fit within the rules of your particular low-carb diet, picking up and using all of the flavors and spices of Mexican cooking is essential.

Don't be stingy with the:
  • minced garlic
  • onions
  • peppers
  • chili powder
  • cumin
  • seasoned pepper
They make Mexican food truly special.

Also, be sure to add plenty of colorful vegetables. And while you're at it, don't be afraid to do a little experimenting. Mexican restaurants are always coming up with new combinations to make their Mexican offerings unique and different.

You can do exactly the same thing at home.


  1. A very fascinating glimpse into a holiday, and the culture that had brought it to being. Mexican dishes reflect the vibrancy and ingenuity of the culture, judging by the several variants of dishes that are fit for different occasions. Cheers!

    Diane Baker @ Alejandra's Restaurant

  2. Thanks. Mexican food is definitely versatile!


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