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The influence of Latin American food on the U.S. cultural palate continues to expand, from not only Mexico, but also from across Central and South America and the Caribbean. From empanadas to chimichurri, there’s an array of Latin food styles and flavors for limited-service operators to consider.
Of course, Mexican fare is a huge influence, joining Italian and Chinese as the big three ethnic culinary styles impacting America. There are 26,000 U.S. quick-service and fast-casual restaurants with a Latin American theme, and all but 1.6 percent of them are Mexican, according to statistics from CHD Expert, a foodservice industry data and marketing firm.
“The Mexican demographic is the largest Latino population in the United States, so it has a bigger influence,” says Brandon Gerson, marketing manager for the Chicago-based company.
Mexican influence is key to many large limited-service restaurant operators in America, including Chipotle Mexican Grill in fast casual and Taco Bell in quick service. And these days, burritos, tacos, and salsas have expanded so far beyond Mexican restaurants that some may not view them as ethnic anymore. Tortilla-influenced wraps have become significant menu items at all types of limited-service restaurants.
Other dishes from Latin America are starting to gain traction, especially in larger cities and Southern border states, as well as Florida. “As globalization continues and cultures mix, you will get different types of cuisines types becoming more popular,” Gerson says.
Many cultures influenced Latin American food, from indigenous peoples to European explorers, particularly Spaniards. The Europeans, including Portuguese, Dutch, and British, brought their own foods and those of regions they colonized.
There’s plenty of opportunity in Latin American food. Research by the National Restaurant Association finds that 80 percent of consumers eat at least one type of ethnic cuisine a month.
“The American palate is still evolving, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see some particular item from Latin America suddenly become very popular,” Gerson says, adding that this happened recently with sriracha, a hot Thai chile sauce.
The proximity and size of Mexico itself provide a variety of cultures and cooking styles that offer plenty of inspiration. Chicago chef Rick Bayless has harnessed many of these at his full-service and fast-casual restaurants, including Xoco and Tortas Frontera.
“We are focused on regional Mexican cuisines and driven by local agriculture,” says Andres Padilla, chef de cuisine for Topolobampo, one of Bayless’s full-service restaurants under the Frontera portfolio.
Frontera has 10 fast-casual restaurants—two Xoco units, three Frontera Fresco restaurants, and five Tortas Frontera locations.
“They’re using the same ingredients as Frontera and Topolo-bampo,” Padilla says of the fast casuals, adding that this includes locally sourced, organic ingredients. “We may treat the food differently, but with the same respect. It’s at a different price point, so we’re able to bring access to more people.”
For instance, cochinita pibil, a Yucatan-inspired pulled pork, uses a similar recipe across all the restaurants. The slow-cooked braised pork—at company-owned units, the wood-fired meat roasts in banana leaves to resemble traditional pit cooking—has an achiote marinade and is served with black beans and spicy habanero salsa.
Tortas—Mexican sandwiches on baguettes—are key at Frontera’s fast-casual units, although Frontera Fresco also has burritos and tacos. The tortas include cochinita pibil, as well as pepito (braised short ribs with caramelized onions and other ingredients) and ahogada (pork carnitas with black beans, tomato-arbol chile broth, and pickled onions).
A Zagat consumer survey earlier this year ranked Tortas Frontera the top fast-casual restaurant in Chicago. Another Mexican fast-casual chain, Torchy’s Tacos, was tops in Dallas and Houston.
“We call it gourmet street food,” says Michael Rypka, vice president of culinary and marketing, who began Torchy’s in 2006 out of a trailer. Most menu items are made from scratch at the chain’s 31 restaurants in Texas (another unit is set to open in Denver).
“I’d say there is a decent amount of influence from interior Mexican food, but then we add our own layers on it,” he says.
The Mr. Orange taco, for instance, is reminiscent of something one might find in Veracruz but with a twist: It has blackened salmon topped with black bean and corn relish, queso fresco, cilantro, and an avocado salsa drizzle on a corn tortilla.
Other tacos feature grilled, fried, and stewed meats and fish—even Jamaican jerk chicken. Various other ingredients, including vegetables and chile-infused salsas, play a role in the tacos. Torchy’s also features a taco of the month, like September’s Tipsy Chicken with homemade maple bacon and bourbon marmalade. “It’s a really good way to test items,” Rypka says, noting that about 80 percent of the menu began as a monthly offering.
Burritos originated in northern Mexico, but the recently evolved assembly-line preparation style—popularized by Chipotle—is rooted in the taco vendors in San Francisco’s Mission District that started dishing them a half century ago. These burritos are made with large flour tortillas filled with a protein, beans, rice, salsas, and other ingredients.
New York’s Dos Toros, which launched in 2009 to capture the San Francisco taqueria style the founders grew up with, has grown to nine stores in the Big Apple.
“We are built to be self-contained, so [each unit] does everything in-house,” says Leo Kremer, who owns the business with his brother, Oliver. “Grilling jalapeños, cooking from dried beans, making carnitas every day, even something as simple as rice, speaks volume.”
Burritos are heated in steamers to melt the cheese. Dos Toros’ tacos are larger than traditional taqueria style, and its quesadillas are like folded, crispy burritos, not tortilla disks with melted cheese.
Carnitas are the measuring stick for Mexican-style restaurants and a signature item at Dos Toros, he says, even though more grilled chicken is sold. “We sear and then slow cook it for hours,” he says. “It’s the most difficult protein, and no one here does it like us.”
Any spiciness and heat in Dos Toros’ food is from the sauces, which include classic chile verde, smoky chipotle, and a hot habanero sauce that carries a floral-citrus flavor, Kremer says. The sauce is usually applied on the preparation line.
Empanadas—pastries stuffed with meats, vegetables, fruit, and other ingredients—are an item popular to cultures across Latin America. At Mr. Empanada, which has nine restaurants in the Tampa, Florida, area, the empanadas are Cuban-style and fried.
“This is what we kind of grew up on,” says Audrey Perez, chief executive of the family-owned business. Traditional Cuban empanadas include ground beef, crab, or guava with cream cheese, but Mr. Empanadas features a dozen varieties. All of the company’s empanadas are made at a central location, frozen, and sent to stores.