Menu Innovations | April 2016 | By Barney Wolf

Culinary Forefathers

Cuisine from Europe and Latin America continues to make an impression in U.S. restaurants.
US fast food restaurant chains develop menu ideas from historic global meals.
The U.S.’s immigrant heritage brought a melting pot of flavors from Europe and Latin America that remain popular today. Thinkstock

Just as the U.S. is a nation that has attracted immigrants from around the world, the nation’s cuisine has drawn on influences from all over. Culinary inspiration from Europe and Latin America in particular has influenced limited-service food in the U.S. immensely and continues to drive R&D decisions in quick serves and fast casuals.

While Italian influences on the domestic palate are well known, there are other European foods that have had a huge impact, including some at the foundation of the quick-service restaurant industry.

“The influences on hamburgers and hot dogs both tend to be credited to Germany,” says Beth Forrest, an associate professor of liberal arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, who teaches “Histories and Cultures of Food.”

She adds that there were about 5 million Germans who immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th century, and they, as with others who made their way to this country, brought their culture—including their recipes—with them. That includes chopped beefsteak and the finely ground pork sausages named for their originating cities, Hamburg and Frankfurt. Later, in Vienna, beef was added to pork in sausage and was given the name “wiener” after the Austrian city.

But it was in America where the Hamburg steak and the frankfurter were served on bread or a bun to become the portable hamburger and hot dog, respectively, says Eric Mittenthal, vice president of public affairs at the North American Meat Institute.

“Immigrants brought all kinds of sausages, but hot dogs caught on,” says Mittenthal, who is also president of the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.

Meanwhile, the modern concept of putting food between two slices of bread—the sandwich—is credited to its English namesake, John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich.

Another quick-service favorite, french fries, is an example of food that originated in the Americas. Potatoes were introduced to Europe by Spanish conquistadors who had traveled to Latin America, and they made their way back across the Atlantic with a fried version created in Belgium or France.

Latin America became a fusion of Spanish cooking traditions and ingredients—wheat, legumes, and meat from cattle and pigs—and original foods, including crops like corn, yucca, tomatoes, and potatoes. Plenty of other crops—pumpkins, chile peppers, squash, avocados, cocoa beans, vanilla, peanuts, strawberries, papaya, and many others—are native to the Americas and have become parts of other cuisines worldwide.

Foods originating in the Mediterranean region have also grown in popularity, partly due to health attributes of a diet focused on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil.

Greek items like pitas—alone or stuffed with lamb, beef, and other ingredients in a gyro—are a long-time portable item in America. That type of food has meshed recently with Middle Eastern fare like hummus and falafel in creating a broader Mediterranean cuisine.

The mixing of cultures is still going on in Europe and is making its way here. Austin, Texas–based Verts serves döner kebab (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie similar to a gyro), which originated in Turkey, became popular in Germany, and is now taking off in the U.S.

“This is important fast-casual food in Europe,” says company cofounder Michael Heyne, who came to the U.S. from Germany to study at the University of Texas at Austin. “It came to Germany with all the Turkish immigrants in the 1960s and ’70s.” Bread was added to make the kebabs into sandwiches, he says.

“In Germany, they also added sauce—people in Europe like sauce on stuff,” he adds, noting that yogurt was used as a base for that sauce. At Verts, protein options are a beef and lamb blend, chicken, or falafel, and there are 10 veggies and five sauces that can be added.

Heyne says the company, which has about two dozen units in Texas and recently secured funding for major growth, is in the process of adding more Mediterranean-style menu items. “Our brand doesn’t tell an immediate story to Americans, but if we say the word Mediterranean, people understand it,” he says.

Eastern European food also has gained a quick-service foothold, often in the style of delicatessens that were made popular by Jewish immigrants, Forrest says.

Some popular sandwich styles—including those with corned beef and pastrami that originated in Romania and Moldova—plus chicken soups and cheesecake still can be found at traditional delis-turned-modern fast casuals, including Jason’s Deli.

In some markets, “it’s often difficult to keep the corned beef and pastrami in stock,” says Jamie Cohen, chief branding officer for the Beaumont, Texas–based chain that began in 1976 as a kosher delicatessen. “We’re still using the original proprietary recipe. The corned beef is pickled and the pastrami is spiced with heavy black pepper and smoked.”

As Jason’s Deli has grown and expanded—the restaurant chain has nearly 270 units in 30 states—it has expanded beyond traditional sandwich favorites to many other types of menu items, although the Reuben is among its top five sandwiches in most markets.

Eastern European food can also be found at quick-service places like the lunch-only Al’s Corner Market in Barberton, Ohio, which features Hungarian and Slovene sausages, Polish pierogies, and Hungarian chicken paprikash among its offerings.

“Much of Europe has the same taste buds, so many of these dishes can be found in a number of different countries,” says co-owner Denny Gray. “If you talk to my Serbian buddies, the food is similar to that of my Hungarian buddies. They’re close, but they’re tweaked a little from place to place.”

The sausages at Al’s, served plain or on a soft roll, are juicy and somewhat different from a number of traditional versions. “The ones made the old way are often hard and dry in order to be preserved when there was no refrigeration,” he says.

While Mexican food has become as important as Italian in the U.S., there are many other European-influenced Latin American dishes that are as different as the many Central and South American and Caribbean nations where they originated.

Cuban sandwiches are an example of how a Latin American item can catch on. The “mixto,” for example, is a pressed sandwich favored by Cuban immigrant workers and includes roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on Cuban bread. The southern Florida favorite has spread to various sandwich shops, including Jason’s Deli, which has its own take, Cohen says. The chain uses smoked pork loin rather than mojo pork, and a softer, sweeter white bread than the traditional pan Cubano.

While it’s not unusual for immigrants to start restaurants after arriving in the states, a few Latin American quick-service companies exported their menus here. That includes Pollo Campero, which began in 1971 in Guatemala.

The chain’s menu, which is built around its fried chicken that is lightly battered with “Mayan spices,” says Fernando Palarea, Pollo Campero’s director of research and development, includes a variety of modern twists on Latin American favorites, plus some local dishes.

“When we came to the United States, we faced two challenges,” he says. “People from Latin America are very passionate about the way they cook.” At the same time, there are different grains and vegetables in the states, so some adaptations were necessary.

The company’s grilled Peruvian chicken, which uses a rub featuring 17 spices from Peru as well as peppers and citrus, was actually born in the U.S. and then adopted not only at the 55 Pollo Campero units in the states, but at all 300 worldwide, as well.

Empanadas are popular throughout Latin America, and Pollo Campero serves three versions of the portable, fried-and-stuffed-dough favorite. There are also plantains and yucca fries as sides, and beverages include traditional horchata and several others.

Brazil-based fast casual Giraffas, which has nine Florida restaurants, features national and regional favorites like the picanha cut of beef, chimichurri, quinoa, and farofa.

While countries south of the U.S. border are known for influencing our tastes, there is at least one dish from north of the border that is finding a foothold here: poutine.

This dish—french fries and cheese curds covered with gravy—began in Quebec in the 1950s and has since become popular all over Canada, says Ryan Smolkin, chief executive of the Canadian chain Smoke’s Poutinerie, which has more than 100 units in Canada and five in the U.S.

In addition to traditional poutine, there are 30 specialty versions at Smoke’s, from Steak Peppercorn with flat iron steak, sautéed mushrooms, and peppercorn gravy to another that features pierogies. A breakfast poutine features bacon, sausage, and maple syrup.

Across America, there are regional dishes that remain popular in a single area, like Utah’s pastrami burgers, which were created by Greek immigrants. Others have gained a national presence, such as New Orleans’ muffuletta sandwich. And some American food, like hamburgers and hot dogs, are now international favorites.

Hot dogs have a variety of regional styles, but perhaps none is as popular as the Chicago-style version, which features a beef wiener topped with yellow mustard, relish, tomato, celery salt, chopped onions, a kosher pickle spear, and sport peppers on a poppyseed bun.

The dogs, along with other Chicago favorites Italian beef and Maxwell Street Polish sausages, make up a huge part of sales at Portillo’s, which began as a hot dog stand in 1963 and now has more than 40 units in five states.

“We serve a lot of Chicago street food,” says founder Dick Portillo. “We’ve proven that you can take a regional thing and bring it into other areas.”

Italian beef was a favorite of immigrants who sliced the roast beef “really thin so it would go longer,” Portillo says. It is served on a long Italian-style roll, dipped in the meat’s juices, and often topped with giardiniera or sweet peppers.

Barbecue has all kinds of origin stories, but a variety of regional barbecue styles have grown up in the U.S., including eastern and western North Carolina and Memphis styles, which are built around pork. But in central and west Texas, it’s beef that reigns—notably brisket.

“What makes Texas barbecue unique is that it’s about the beef,” says William Weisiger, pitmaster at Ten 50 BBQ in Richardson, Texas. “It’s less sauce, and it’s really about the rub and the meat. The sauce is just a complement to it.”

The barbecue joint also serves pulled pork, popular in the South and east Texas, along with smoked sausages that came to the region with German immigrants. “We have someone who makes sausage for us with our proprietary blend of pork and spices,” Weisiger says.

In New Mexico, varieties of chile peppers—particularly an earthy cultivar of the Anaheim pepper—that are grown in the Rio Grande Valley, specifically around the village of Hatch, have increasingly gained favor around the country.

Several limited-service restaurants are featuring Hatch green chilies either in regular or limited-time-only items. Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers added it in 2013 when the Wichita, Kansas–based company’s Albuquerque, New Mexico, unit opened.

“The franchisee said we absolutely had to have that,” says cofounder Scott Redler.

After running tests, green chile double burgers, hot dogs, and cheese fries were created for New Mexico Freddy’s stores. Neighboring markets also could sell the green chile items, and later they became an annual limited-time offer at all 180 restaurants in 15 states.

“These menu items did very well even beyond New Mexico,” Redler says. “It is such a phenomenal flavor. The trend these days is for more intense flavors, which the Hatch chilies provide. Once you taste them, it’s absolutely a craveable flavor.”

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