Continue to Site

    More Than Mexican

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

    Bistro Sabor
    Regional Latin dishes like posole are gaining popularity with U.S. consumers.

    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