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“These trucks are taking dishes you would see in a traditional restaurant or mom and pop and making them more unique,” says Chef Shane Maack of Spicetec Flavors & Seasonings. “It’s about comfort, and easy, simple food someone can understand, but taking it to another level by adding more intense flavors. Instead of traditional meatballs, for example, you might see an Asian version made with turkey or fish or some kind of protein other than just beef or pork.” It’s precisely this blend of the pubby, the familiar, and the traditional with more bold, spicy, and citrus flavors from different ethnic cuisines that consumers are looking for these days, Maack says.
“Even when you see pub food, you can see ethnic influences, like Szechwan chicken skewers,” Otto says. “Then there are the egg roll–type appetizers, but filled with more recognizable ingredients.”
Technomic’s latest consumer snack report pointed out similar findings. The next ethnic-style snack varieties to watch carry Asian flavors and influences, the report says. For appetizers and starters, that means Asian-inspired finger foods like egg rolls or spring rolls, potstickers, bao, and dumplings.
Although Mexican food has become almost mainstream, consumers continue to gravitate toward the bolder, spicier flavor accents in Latin cuisine, but in miniature varieties or handheld foods.
This is precisely how the street food concept has begun to trickle into the quick-serve segment, Mintel’s Hayden says. Last year, Taco Bell added a new line of smaller, street-inspired tacos, including the Cantina Taco line featuring a choice of chicken, beef, or carnitas served on a corn tortilla and topped with chopped onions, cilantro, and a lime wedge for a simpler, authentic Mexican taco.
In addition, Hayden says, Qdoba Mexican Grill debuted its Mini Street Tacos: three tacos made with four-inch corn tortillas filled with Qdoba’s signature pulled pork or shredded beef, topped with red onion and cilantro, and served with a slice of lime and a side of Ancho Chile BBQ beans.
Consumers are growing even more sophisticated in their taste preferences when it comes to protein-based foods, snacks, and more. Quick serves have responded to this by getting more specific in their offerings, focusing on more regional flavors within broader ethnic cuisines.
“Instead of focusing on Latin food in general, we’re seeing a lot more regionalized flavors, such as Northern Mexican cuisine or Southern Mexican cuisine,” Otto says. “It’s the same thing with Indian cuisine. They use different spices and heat levels from region to region. One group uses more tomato in their cooking, while the other has more creamy dishes. You may see the same spices like cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, allspice, red pepper, and black pepper in Indian cuisine, but they’re used at different ratios to get more floral notes or more heat from region to region.”
In terms of Asian cuisines, Maack says, “nothing is just Asian anymore. It’s Korean, or Vietnamese, or specific regions of China. Now you’ll see particular countries called out.”
Barbecue in snack and full meal form has, in particular, set the stage for these worldly, more regional and authentic flavors. “Global barbecue is huge right now,” Maack says.
When the Kogi BBQ food truck introduced the world to Korean barbecue, those tangy flavors blending toasted sesame, brown sugar, and soy with garlic and cilantro began to catch on throughout the country, Otto says. Then there are the South African grilling sauces spiked with hot red pepper, fruit, and citrus. Argentine barbecue, or asado, exudes smoky-sweet tastes with a blend of paprika, red wine, cumin, onion, garlic, and a touch of sugar. Russian all-meat shish kebabs typically found among street vendors come dressed with sauces that combine pomegranate juice, red wine, nutmeg, mace, and ginger.
“I think barbecue’s popularity is driven by the Millennials who like to try different things and have a more open palate,” Otto says.
And in the U.S., you won’t just see barbecue, but specific regional barbecues called out, Maack says. “Carolina is more vinegary, but also sweet. St. Louis is super sweet and thick. And Texas is more about the rub and the way the meat is cooked than the sauce.”
The Healthy Factor
When it comes to protein-based snack foods, healthfulness has become a draw among consumers, aside from the bold flavors of regional ethnic cuisines or the draw of pub food.
According to Technomic, more than one-third of consumers surveyed for its consumer snack report say they are choosing healthier snacks today compared to two years ago.
Starbucks has jumped on that notion with its protein snack plates packed with peanut butter and light cheeses paired alongside fruit and vegetables. And Au Bon Pain’s lineup of reduced-portion-size “snacks” or quick bites also focus on the filling nature of low-fat and vegetarian proteins, with hummus and cucumber, cheese and fruits, and turkey with asparagus and cranberry nut relish.
Consumers are also seeking out lower-sodium protein options, Maack says. “We use salt for several reasons, for preservation and processing such as with sausages, but also for flavor,” he says. When the salt comes out, other spices, heat, or citrus elements need to go in.
As far as lean protein goes, “Bison is becoming very popular, at least in the full-service segment,” Maack says. “It’s considered a healthier red meat used for steaks, burgers, sliders, and other beef dishes.” Sustainability proponents argue bison preserves land better than cattle by the way they graze.
Bison might be a ways away from the quick-service segment, but it’s the introduction of newer protein options like these and different protein combinations drawn from traditional comfort classics that have brought a renewed sense of creativity, simplicity, authenticity, healthfulness, and of course, portability to the limited-service scene.