Menu Innovations | January 2013 | By Barney Wolf

More Than Mexican

Regional Latin American flavors are winning over U.S. diners.

Regional Latin dishes like posole are gaining popularity with U.S. consumers.
Regional Latin dishes like posole are gaining popularity with U.S. consumers. Bistro Sabor
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Americans’ love affair with ethnic food doesn’t seem to be ebbing. The number of various cultures’ restaurants continues to grow as diners seek new flavors and ingredients from around the world.

According to data from global market research firm Mintel, four in every five Americans who ate out in March 2012 dined at an ethnic restaurant. More than half of them dined at one of the nation’s three largest ethnic restaurant types: Chinese, Mexican, and Italian.

But diners are looking for more. After all, Chinese food does not represent every type of Asian cuisine, and Italian cooking is not the embodiment of all European fare. In the same vein, Mexican dishes make up only one Latin food style.

Latin restaurants have grown as more people of Hispanic origin make their way to the U.S., says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic Inc., a Chicago market research and consulting firm. At the same time, American palates have become more sophisticated and adventurous, so “we are looking for new flavors,” she says.

As was the case with Chinese and Italian food, much of Mexican cuisine in the U.S. became Americanized. Now, Chapman says, “Mexican food has permeated our culinary culture, so we’ve become more critical about authentic products.”

This has led many Americans to realize that not all food from south of the border is the same.

“You can draw similarities and inferences between Mexican and other Latin cuisines, such as their usage and prevalence of many ingredients,” says Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick, a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio. “There is a connecting force, but there are very distinct differences.” Multiple hot-pepper varieties are available, for instance, but “there are incredible differences in the treatment” of peppers across the huge, culturally diverse region.

Latin flavors come from a mix of influences, from the indigenous people to the Spanish and Portuguese explorers and soldiers who colonized the Americas. Today, all types of restaurants have at least one Mexican item, like tacos or burritos, on the menu. Many restaurants employ tortillas for sandwich wraps and chile peppers for flavor.

“Mexican food has become an integral part of the [U.S.] cultural landscape,” says nationally syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano, whose book, Taco USA, discusses the cuisine and its move north from Mexico. “There’s been a multipronged assault on American palates by the ecolytes of this cuisine.”

Two distinct cuisines that developed in time, Arellano says, were Tex-Mex, influenced by northern Mexican cooking with dishes like chili con carne, nachos, and fajitas; and Cal-Mex, based on central Mexico and Sonora tastes with tacos, burritos, and carne asada.

Mexican restaurants in the U.S. now range from small family eateries and food trucks to the 22 multiunit operations in Technomic’s list of top 500 chains. Many are increasingly focused on making their ingredients and dishes more authentic.

“We try to make sure that everything on the menu ties back to inspirations from Mexico,” says Ted Stoner, director of strategic product development at Qdoba Mexican Grill, a 600-plus-unit chain based in Denver. Creating dishes is “all about the ingredients balancing together,” he says.

Qdoba’s Ancho Chile Barbecue Burrito has slow-roasted meat with mole poblano, a sauce representative of Mexican cooking. Mole varieties use chile peppers and a range of other ingredients—sometimes even chocolate—to balance out the heat. “We don’t describe ours as a mole, because most people don’t know what that is,” Stoner says. “I decided to call it a barbecue sauce, because that is what Americans understand. We left in the pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds, but put some smoke in it.”

The idea of using a familiar name to explain a dish is occurring at various restaurants. Some bakery-cafés refer to their versions of Cuban sandwiches as Cuban panini; both are pressed sandwiches, but the term panini gives Americans a better understanding of what to expect.

Many Mexican ingredients are found elsewhere in Latin America, but not everywhere. For instance, few Mexican-style tortillas exist south of Honduras, Johnson-Kossick says. “You don’t see them as much in Costa Rica, and once you get to Panama, forget it,” she says. Instead, there are arepas, which are thicker and more like a cake
than a flatbread.

It is best to think of Latin foods in terms of regions where ingredients and cooking styles are alike, rather than by specific nationalities, Johnson-Kossick says. “If you look at the Caribbean and southern Caribbean, with countries like Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela, the ceviches are similar,” she says. Ceviche is raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spiced with chiles or a pepper sauce and other seasonings.

Food from the Andean region features ancient grains, such as quinoa, and various peppers and tubers. Brazil and its bordering countries offer a region where “everything lives and dies around manioc and its derivatives,” Johnson-Kossick says. Manioc is the Brazilian name for the cassava, a tuber variety. In other parts of Latin America, it is known as yuca.

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