Chicken is a perennial restaurant favorite, but that doesn’t mean we’re eating it the same old ways; in fact, this humble protein is experiencing a renaissance in the fast-casual landscape, led by innovative ethnic concepts whose seasonings, techniques, and flavor profiles turn the bird on its head.
Its broad appeal makes chicken a flavor translator, the ideal vessel for a new cuisine or unexpected flavor.
“Chicken is a staple ingredient in almost every cuisine, and now more than ever before, it’s being prepared authentically on a massive scale,” says Eli Rosenberg, vice president of marketing at market research firm Food Genius. “In 2014, we saw an enormous increase in authentic ingredients and preparation methods on menus. Terms like galangal, a ginger-like root common in Indonesian curries, now appear on 1,000 more menus this year than last year. This metric is indicative of an overall growing interest in authentic ingredients and preparation methods.” He adds that Chipotle’s mention on its website of its chicken being “marinated in spicy, smoky chipotle-chili adobo” is indicative of the sweeping acceptance of these flavors.
One concept that emphasizes authentic preparation methods is Nando’s, a South African import that has around 1,200 restaurants worldwide in 23 countries, including more than 20 in the U.S. The star of Nando’s menu, the peri-peri chicken, is made using a centuries-old method that originated in Africa’s Portuguese-settled areas. Fresh chickens are butterflied; marinated in a mix of onion, garlic, lemon, oil, vinegar, salt, and peri-peri peppers for at least 24 hours; then flame-grilled to order. Finally, they’re basted in a sauce of the customer’s choosing: mango lemon herb, medium, hot, extra hot, or—if you ask for it—the off-menu extra extra hot. Nando’s peri-peri sauce features the same ingredients as the marinade, just in different proportions that make for a more viscous sauce.
“Even to this day, when you go to Mozambique or Angola, you’ll see it the way we do it,” says Nando’s marketing manager Sepanta Bagherpour. “We keep it traditional and pure.”
Bagherpour says the best introduction to Nando’s is an order of 1⁄2 chicken, basted in medium or hot peri-peri sauce, with rice and coleslaw. But the restaurant also sells 1⁄4 chickens on the bone, as well as sandwiches, wraps, and pitas. It also makes use of a part of the chicken that sees less traction in the fast-casual sphere: the livers, another traditional African-Portuguese item. “If you look at a traditional menu mix, it’s certainly not the highlight,” Bagherpour says. “But is has a diehard following. That’s amazing.”
Nando’s has been in the U.S. for seven years, and it didn’t have to make any recipe tweaks to accommodate the American palate, Bagherpour says. “American consumers are not scared of a little bit of heat. We appeal to a more adventurous eater. The menu is the same everywhere; the customization is more with sides. So here we have butternut squash, which is delicious. There are certain salads in the U.S. that you won’t find elsewhere, like baby kale.” The average ticket takes eight minutes and, in that time, the customer can also customize his or her order with offerings from the sauce bar, which features all of the options, including the extra extra hot.
Another key characteristic of this new category of chicken dishes is freshness, with many restaurants either cooking to order or constantly cooking so that, at any given time, an order can be filled with chicken just a few minutes off the heat. At the Texas-based Mexican chain Taco Cabana, chicken breast—used across the menu in skillets, tacos, and quesadillas—is vacuum-marinated, using a sous-vide machine and a proprietary marinade. The breast meat is then cut and cooked to order in front of guests.
“[Sous vide] sounds funny when talking about a fast casual, but the theory is the same,” says Taco Cabana’s director of research and development, chef Andy Dismore. “It imparts flavor throughout the product.”
Likewise, at Garbanzo, a fast-casual Mediterranean grill, the aim is to serve chicken that’s finished cooking minutes before the customer receives it. “For the most part, it’s cooked to order as closely as possible, knowing of course that sometimes it takes longer to cook than people want to wait,” says chef Marci Levine. “Our philosophy is to cook less more often.”
Garbanzo’s two chicken offerings, the breast kebab meat and the thigh shawarma meat, both come from fresh, natural chickens, often locally sourced. The chicken sits for 24 hours in a proprietary marinade based on the founder’s grandmother’s recipe before being cooked—either on a flat-top or grill, depending on the location—and it outperforms every other protein on the Garbanzo menu.
Because the chicken is so popular, Levine says, there is little reason to mess with it. “It cooks up really well. It’s very manageable from an operational standpoint,” she says. “It fits with our cost point. It’s great for health nuts or someone not familiar with the cuisine. It meets the needs of all of our guests and of what we’re doing as a concept.”
While chicken breast is still popular, operators are also seeing customers take a new shine to dark meat, long praised by chefs for its flavor and moistness. Taco Cabana has seen it with its braised chicken offering, a thigh meat seasoned with citrus, onion, bell pepper, and spices. For consistency’s sake, it’s made according to the restaurant’s specifications by a local manufacturer.
“What we’re starting to see across menus in the last few years is a renewed appreciation for dark-meat chicken,” Dismore says. “We’re continually looking for how we can apply that to our menu going forward.”
Fields Good Chicken, a New York City quick serve, offers herb-grilled, mojo, and barbecue chicken, all brined and marinated for maximum flavor and juiciness. The mojo, an ethnic preparation of boneless-skinless thigh meat, is the most popular. “That’s a great product—more flavor, juicier—and it’s still pretty lean when it’s boneless and skinless and grilled,” says founder Field Failing.
Dark meat is something Pollo Tropical—a Caribbean-inspired brand based in Miami and sister concept to Taco Cabana within Fiesta Restaurant Group—is serving more of, too.
“Absolutely, the trends are moving that way,” says chief operating officer Danny Meisenheimer. “We have some things we’re looking at in terms of working with that more often on a go-forward basis. For the longest time it was sort of secondary in terms of people’s perceptions, but that’s no longer the case. We often get requests for the dark bone-in.”
White or dark, Pollo Tropical starts its chicken off in a 24-hour citrus marinade. Then it’s grilled and served bone-in or boneless, both popular in the restaurant’s 1⁄4- or 1⁄2-chicken plates. The boneless chicken breast is also a hit in sandwiches, wraps, and the restaurant’s signature TropiChops, which are bowls that come filled with the customer’s choice of protein, starch, vegetable, and sauce.
Like Nando’s, both Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana emphasize customization of their signature chicken preparations with sauces. “They’re a really distinct part of what we do,” Meisenheimer says of Pollo Tropical’s options, which include cilantro-garlic, guava-barbecue, and pineapple-rum sauces. “They’re the way we respond to taste and trends and opportunity. The sauces can create a whole different experience for the guests.”
At Taco Cabana, that experience means a bar of fresh salsas, which include Salsa Roja, Salsa Verde, and Salsa de Fuego, made in-house daily. In fact, Taco Cabana balances the levels of flavors in the chicken knowing that customers will be customizing, so that the result is a perfectly seasoned product, Dismore says.
Whether for customization extras or the meat itself, perfecting the flavor profile is key. For instance, now that Taco Cabana is beginning to branch out of Texas and into markets in Georgia and Florida, not only is the team seeing chicken surge to the top of the performance chart—beef is king in Texas—but it’s also seeing a different palate for spice and heat outside the Lone Star State.
“We’re tailor-making it to that guest,” Dismore says. “We’re definitely seeing some discrepancies, and we’re addressing them.” Even more generally, though, Taco Cabana’s flavor profile is constantly evolving. “One of the critical things is to have everything on the menu be rooted in authenticity in the eyes of our guests,” he says. “Having the luxury of being a Texas-based and Texas-centric concept, we have a ready source of benchmarking what’s authentic and what’s not based on our demographic.”
For VertsKebap, an Austin, Texas–based döner kebap concept, founders Michael Heyne and Dominik Stein were that benchmark. The German ex-pats were hungry for home, specifically for döner, the spinning grilled meat (similar to gyro or shawarma) that originated in the Ottoman Empire and spread throughout Europe. Before launching Verts, Heyne and Stein embarked on a three-day, 36-stop döner tour of Berlin and Hamburg, keeping detailed notes of their likes and dislikes. They then visited 10 German meat producers and hired the one whose product nailed the taste they were used to. (The winner has an operation in America.)
Verts’ chicken offering starts with fresh, all-natural chicken. After marinating in a spice mixture (paprika, cumin, onion, and garlic are key flavors) for two to four hours, the whole-muscle thigh meat is hand-layered into a rotisserie cone form, wrapped in foil, and frozen. As with a classic rotisserie technique, Verts serves rotisserie meat that continuously cooks throughout the day, but only the outer half-inch is cooking while the core stays frozen. Heyne estimates sales are a 60/40 split between orders of chicken and the hand-layered beef-and-lamb combination.
There’s no question that American palates are expanding, Food Genius’s Rosenberg says.
“Fast-casual restaurants are preparing chicken in more ethnically authentic ways because exposure to different kinds of cuisines is growing, thanks to a mobile and adventurous Millennial population that craves new foods,” he says.
Still, there is the balance of translating authentic flavors for the American palate. Heyne says Verts’ product—taste-tested for Americans during development—is a little more flavorful than Europe’s because of this country’s predilection for richer dishes like burgers. And while the classic condiments in Europe are lettuce, onion, tomato, and cabbage, Verts also offers corn, jalapeños, red pepper, and spring mix. (As Verts slogan goes, “Born in Bursa. Perfected in Berlin. Jalapeño’ed in Austin.”) “It’s an interesting challenge, serving a product with ethnic origin but wanting to achieve a mainstream product that people who don’t know what Middle Eastern and Mediterranean and Turkish mean can still like and don’t have to know exactly what the origin is,” Heyne says.