Menu Innovations | February 2012 | By Barney Wolf

American as Fresh Stir Fry

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“We give customers the taste and perception that the food is healthier and fresh by cooking it right in front of them,” says Kwan Mok, director of operations for the company, which has headquarters in Canada but most of its stores in the U.S.

Sushi is the main menu item at How Do You Roll?, a small Austin, Texas–based chain that is expanding into other states this year.

The company takes the basics of sushi and then accommodates American tastes with grilled beef or chicken in the roll. Traditional raw fish or eel is also available.

“It demystifies the whole process,” says Yuen Yung, CEO of the seven-unit company. “We have a few featured rolls, but it’s mostly people making their own choices.” They select their wrap (seaweed or soy), rice, vegetables, protein, toppings, and sauces, like wasabi and miso.

The idea of bringing Southeast Asian cuisines together on one limited-service menu made its mark nearly two decades ago with noodle chains. Noodles & Co. features dishes with flavors of China, Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia, as well as the Mediterranean and U.S.

Pei Wei Asian Diner, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, went a different direction. The entire menu at the fast-casual offspring of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro features tastes from various Southeast Asian nations.

“We want to give people a little culinary tourism,” says Pei Wei executive chef Eric Justice. “Southeast Asia is not any one flavor, although [the cuisines] may share some things. There is a unique flavor attraction to each.”

Justice regularly adds new items to the Pei Wei menu, because consumers are willing to be experimental.

“The stuff I couldn’t get away with five years ago, I can do now,” he says. “I pull guests along the way, and every year I go a little farther. The dish may look like something they’ve had in the past, but we trick them with one new spice at a time.”

Fish sauce, however, is still used in moderation. “If you get too aggressive on the fish sauce, they run for the hills,” Justice says. “If they don’t know it’s there, then it’s OK.”

A new pan-Asian fast-casual entry is ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, created by Chipotle Mexican Grill and its founder, chairman and co-CEO Steve Ells. The restaurant opened last year in Washington, D.C.

The store will determine whether Asian food can translate to the Chipotle model of preparing and serving customized food efficiently.

So far, the test has gone well, Ells told investors during a conference call last fall.

“Some customers have commented that it’s a bit too spicy, which is exactly what I heard when I opened the very first Chipotle 18 years ago,” he said. “What I love is that these customers tell me that it might be too spicy, while they devour every bit of their meal.”

ShopHouse’s bowls feature rice or noodles, a choice of meat or tofu, and an array of vegetables, curries, sauces, and garnishes. It also serves Vietnamese-style Bahn Mi sandwiches filled with meat or tofu. These baguette-based sandwiches contain meat and soy fillings such as steamed, pan-roasted, or oven-roasted seasoned pork belly.

A Southeast Asian snack, the bao, is at the heart of Wow Bao, a four-unit Chicago-area chain created by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

The steam-cooked buns are filled with one of six savory Asian flavors, such as teriyaki chicken or spicy Mongolian beef. There are also sweet baos (coconut custard and chocolate), plus other menu items like homemade ginger ale.

“Baos have been around for thousands of years, but they really hadn’t made their way to America,” says Geoff Alexander, vice president and managing partner of Wow Bao. “It is street food that is portable with a low price point ($1.50 each) and quick service.”

The ginger ale is made fresh with real ginger syrup, sugar cane, and vanilla over soda water. “It’s like fresh ginger exploding in your mouth,” Alexander says.

One Asian style of cooking “that might be ripe for multiple units now could be Korean,” says consultant Shain. “The food is very flavorful and interesting.”

The success of Korean barbecue tacos at food trucks paved the way. Customers of Korilla, a New York food truck, “like the variety and healthy options,” says owner Eddie Song. “Oh, and who doesn’t love Korean barbecue?”

The dish combines Korean-style marinated roasted meat with Mexican tortillas and kimchi, a fermented Korean condiment made with vegetables and seasonings.

CJ Foods, a California-based distributor of Korean food products, recently opened a fast-casual Korean restaurant chain, Bibigo. The first two units are in the Los Angeles communities of Westwood and Beverly Hills.

“Korean, compared to other Asian foods, is underdeveloped among American cuisines,” says Elliot Chung, CJ Foods’ senior brand manager. “Our strategy is that this food trend will grow in foodservice, so we are actively in the restaurant business.”

Bibigo serves bibimbap (a mixture of rice, vegetables, chile pepper paste, and meat) and other popular Korean dishes.

Indian food has also become more popular, but restaurants here remain largely independent.

The Indian flavor is bolder in part because of the curries, says restaurant management professor Parsa, “and that may limit its mainstream American following.”

Meanwhile, a Vietnamese dish, pho, has gained a strong following in the U.S., but its growth is limited because most Americans don’t think soup is a meal.

“The problem is not the flavor,” Justice says. “Americans see soup as a starter. They don’t get it. Plus many people have never heard of it. That’s hard to hurdle.”

But quick-service giant Yum! Brands thinks there is some future in broth-based food. The company, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, acquired a controlling stake in Little Sheep, a Mongolia-based chain of 400 hot-pot restaurants where guests cook thinly sliced meats in simmering broth. The chain has 15 units in North America.

Certainly that signals Asian flavors aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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