Menu Innovations | February 2012 | By Barney Wolf

American as Fresh Stir Fry

Asian cuisine offers various cultural choices and twists on familiar flavors.

There’s not much that Americans find foreign about Asian food these days.

Chinese dishes are as popular as any other ethnic food served at U.S. restaurants, while Japanese and Thai menu items have become commonplace across the country. And cuisine from other Asian nations is increasingly finding its way to American menus.

A variety of limited-service restaurants—chains and independents—feature dishes from one or several Far East cultures.

“The food tends to be a little more interesting, especially for the growing number of consumers tired of the same old thing—burgers and deep fried,” says Arnold Shain, founder of Costa Mesa, California–based consultant Restaurant Group Inc.

“People perceive Asian cuisine as a better way of eating and [as] more healthful, because it has less red meat and more noodles, rice, and vegetables.”

Asian flavors also encompass a wide array of herbs and spices, such as ginger, coriander, and star anise, as well as pastes and sauces made with chiles, soybeans, sesame seeds, rice, fish, and more. Sometimes the ingredients are fermented.

“It’s very difficult to say what Asian flavor is, exactly, because Asia is really diverse,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant research and consulting firm. “It almost doesn’t belong all in one category.”

For years, Chinese and other Asian restaurants in America were largely mom and pop operations. They’ve typically prepared food quickly with high heat and kept costs low by using more vegetables and less protein. Tofu often replaced meat.

This combination of value and speed are also factors embraced by American quick-service operations, and that allowed independents to flourish. It also resulted in fewer multiunit operations than the two other major ethnic foods, Italian and Mexican.

“Historically, the independents have had the value component and the speed component,” Chapman says. “They also had takeout and delivery.”

Multiunit quick-serve chains started to appear in the 1980s, including Panda Express and Pick Up Stix in California and Canada-based Manchu Wok.

“At the time, it was very difficult to replicate Chinese food in multiple units,” says H.G. Parsa, a professor of hospitality management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The challenges included consistency and training.

In addition, “this food was largely prepared on the spot and often was customized to individual tastes.”

Panda Express brought a high level of service, consistency, and cleanliness to the segment. It is now America’s 22nd largest limited-service chain, according to the annual QSR 50 ranking.

Launched in 1973 as Panda Inn, it began as a casual restaurant in Santa Barbara, California. The quick-serve version opened a decade later in a mall 90 miles away. The mall concept was mastered and street locations were added later.

The key for Panda Express was finding “a way to translate the food to American tastes,” says Glenn Lunde, chief marketing officer for the company, which has more than 1,400 units in 40 states.

“If you go to China, the food doesn’t taste like what we know as Chinese food,” he says. “For one thing, ours here is sweeter.” And many operators, including Panda Express, don’t use overpowering ingredients like fish sauce, because it turns off American diners.

The chain’s most popular dish is Orange Chicken. It has chopped chicken pieces that are battered, fried, and coated in a sweet, orange-tinged chile sauce glaze.

“I would say that 75 percent of our customers get Orange Chicken,” Lunde says. “Most people get at least two items, Orange Chicken and one other, so they have several flavors in a meal.” Meals are about $6.

The chain’s roots were in Mandarin-style cooking, but it now features a range of traditional Chinese cuisine, plus original creations. The restaurants also have other Asian flavors, including Kobari Beef inspired by Korean sauces.

Just as Chinese outlets may feature one or two regional or distinct cooking styles, so do Japanese restaurants. Sushi and noodles are two types, but the one that has translated best to American tastes has been sweet-flavored teriyaki.

Some of the country’s biggest quick serves have offered teriyaki items on their menus for some time. Subway began selling its Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki sub in 2002. Carl’s Jr. launched a Teriyaki Burger in 2007 and added a turkey burger version last year.

Other Asian flavors are captured in salads at dozens of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants. These feature Asian-style dressings and toppings such as mandarin oranges, crispy noodles, almonds or other nuts, edamame, sesame seeds, and snow peas.

The key to making a good Asian sauce or dressing for American diners is to keep it relatively simple, says Barry Miles, corporate executive chef for Kraft Foodservice.

“My background is mainly in fine dining, and the urge is to go all crazy and put in 100 ingredients,” he says. “But our customers and their clients want something familiar. You can take something mainstream and give it a twist with hoison or peanut sauce.”

Take a typical Kraft dressing, like Italian Vinaigrette, and add a teaspoon each of fresh grated ginger and sesame oil and you have an Asian-style dressing, Miles says.

Even popular Asian flavors can have mixed results, however. Atlanta-based Great Wraps attempted several Asian-inspired sandwiches, including a Thai Chicken Wrap.

“We gave it a shot, but it just didn’t stick in most of the stores,” says Mark Kaplan, chairman of the company with 66 units in 15 states. He conceded that in many markets, diners looking for Asian flavors just go to nearby Asian restaurants.

Teriyaki dishes, cooked in front of customers, are signature items at Sarku Japan, a 25-year-old chain of more than 200 units, mostly in food courts.

The most popular is chicken teriyaki, which costs $5.25 with rice and vegetables. Many units also feature traditional sushi (six rolls for $4), as well as bento boxes, which is rice, a protein, and vegetables in a box-shaped container ($8).

“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.