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.

While these similarities exist among nations, individual countries do have specific dishes.

Pupusas are popular in El Salvador. They are thick corn tortillas traditionally filled with cheese, refried beans, or a pork meat paste called chicharron. In the U.S., most pupusas are found at food trucks or mom and pop operations, such as Mr. Pupusa, a Venice, California, carryout that sells seven varieties for about $2 each.

Mr. Pupusa manager Vito Iraheta says his most popular items have pork, beans, and cheese, or loroco, a native Salvadoran edible flower.

Brazilian tastes are at the heart of Giraffas, a Brazil-based chain of 400 restaurants, including three in Miami. The first U.S. store opened in 2011, and more are planned.

The menu features steaks and burgers made from the picanha (rump cap) cut of beef, explains João Barbosa, chief executive of Giraffas USA. “It is very traditional,” he says.

The Giraffão, which is a steak sandwich, is one of the top menu items in the chain’s native country, but has taken a while to catch on in America, partly due to its $11.90 price. The Galo de Briga chicken sandwich and single burger are priced at $7.90. There are Brazilian flavors in most Giraffas dishes, including the sauces, beans, rice, quinoa salad, and farofa, which is a toasted flour made from yuca.

The size of the U.S. and its large immigrant population led Guatemala-based Pollo Campero to expand here several years ago. The chain draws its influences from “all over Latin America,” says Lisken Kastalanych, vice president of marketing. “We’re bringing the flavors people want to experience, even if they can’t travel down there.”

The company’s name means “country chicken,” and birds are the stars at the chain, which started in 1971 and has more than 300 restaurants in three continents.

The fried chicken recipe, passed down several generations, uses a signature blend of Latin-influenced flavors. Sides include slow-cooked pinto beans, yuca fries, and sweet plantains—Latin bananas—that are roasted and served with sour cream.

Pollo Campero has been in the U.S. for a decade and has grown to about 50 stores in the states. Last year, it launched a fast-casual concept in Houston with a wider menu and more Latin influences “to attact a broader customer,” Kastalanych says.

Peruvian-spiced grilled chicken is on the menu at the fast casual, as are quinoa salad and several types of tacos, including steak with Argentine chimichuri sauce. There are also four empanadas (a stuffed pastry that is baked or fried), including one with Cuban-style pulled pork.

More operators around the country are similarly embracing the idea of offering multiple Latin American cuisines. Chix, in Washington, D.C., focuses on three chicken styles, including Peruvian and Colombian. Combined with that are sides, such as Cuban-style black beans. “I think people are looking for these different options,” says Victoria Garcia, who opened the restaurant with her husband five years ago.

The basic Chix marinade is a sweet and savory recipe created by Garcia’s Spanish father, a chef. The Peruvian version features a blend of spices typically used in Peru, while the Colombia chicken dish has coconut milk and coffee among its ingredients.

In Napa, California, Bistro Sabor brings together a variety of flavors from Latin American countries. Owner Ariel Ceja, part of the family that operates Ceja Vineyards in the Napa Valley, and chef Jeff Murphy came up with a menu that combines multiple Latin-influenced items, from Cuban tortas and Peruvian-spiced fries to pupusas and salmon ceviche. The posole recipe has been in Ceja’s
family for generations.

“I’d like to say our style is pan-Latin,” Ceja says. “Most of the menu is fusion. We do have tacos with a lot of different Mexican ingredients, but we are doing many other dishes, like our Lomo Saltado,” a Peruvian-Chinese stir fry.

One of the first limited-service restaurant operators to fuse Latin and other ethnic styles was Wahoo’s Fish Taco, whose founders in 1988 combined their Brazilian-born Asian backgrounds with the food of Mexico and the surfer style of California. The result is an eclectic mix that includes tacos with fillings as diverse as carnitas, tofu, and shrimp marinated in a Polynesian sauce.

“If you break it down, tacos and burritos are Mexican, and everything in Brazil is barbecued, so we thought we could grill our fish and our meat and put it in a taco,” says cofounder Wing Lam, who leads the 55-unit chain. “Let’s just blend the cultures.”

Asian influences include a chile paste created by Lam’s father that has a gingery flavor, with a bite up front from jalapeño peppers and at the back from Chinese peppers. “When you add that to a fish taco, it creates a whole different taste,” Lam says.

Latin influences are also strong in the Caribbean. Pollo Tropical, a Miami-based chain of 120 units in the U.S. and abroad, employs a variety of Caribbean flavors, including spices, fruit juices, and regional favorites like mojo, a Cuban sauce made with olive oil, garlic, cumin, and other ingredients. The mojo is used as a marinade for the chain’s chicken and roasted pork dishes, and as a sauce with boiled yuca.

“We make our own pork, and it marinates in the mojo for 24 hours,” says Jeff Webb, senior vice president of development for Pollo Tropical. “Our mojo is a blend of different juices and herbs and spices like cilantro, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper.”

The chain also has its own take on sancoche, a Caribbean stew made with yuca, plantains, celery root, and corn.

Barney Wolf is based in Ohio and a regular contributor to QSR and QSRmagazine.com.