Ethnic Push

Italian. Mexican. Chinese. In that order, our favorite cuisines have, in many ways, gone mainstream. That said, there's been a push for more regional identification and other more specific ethnic ingredients, flavors and cooking methods, like Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches and hot, brothy pho to Peruvian, Guatemalan and other lesser known Latin, Central and South American cuisines.

In fact, ethnic foods seem to pervade all aspects of a menu. National Restaurant Association's What's Hot list cited ethnic-inspired appetizers (tempura, taquitos, kabobs, hummus) and breakfast items (chorizo scrambled eggs, coconut milk pancakes) as trendy items this year.

When it comes to the currently most popular ethnic cuisines, regional ethnic ranks first, followed by fusion, Southeast Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Malaysian), Peruvian and Latin American cuisine in the fifth spot. Beyond that, African and North African, Mediterranean, even Belgian cuisines find spots on the extended list.

"Some say Korean is the next big thing, but we're only really seeing that in small flavor enhancements like barbecue marinades and sauces," says Kathy Hayden, an analyst at Chicago-based foodservice research firm Mintel. That's not to mention the "fusion" Asian tacos made popular by food trucks out West. "Then we have the whole Pan-Asian crossover, where menus aren't really true to any one cuisine, but instead we're seeing more subtle influences from Vietnamese, Thailand and other Pacific Rim countries."

More Flavor at Chain Restaurants

According to Chicago-based research firm Technomic, two-thirds of consumers enjoy trying new flavors on occasion at chain restaurants, and many of those flavor innovations are increasingly coming in ethnic form. Just over half of consumers polled by Technomic said they are more interested in ethnic flavors and cuisines more than a year ago, and that's played out at fast-casual, full-service and limited-service chains.

Steakhouses and both limited-service and full-service Mexican restaurants, in particular, are seen among consumers as a place to experiment with new tastes, according to Technomic. On the quick-serve front, Chipotle and Qdoba lead the pack in that regard.

Moroccan is the most up-and-coming cuisine, with nearly four out of 10 consumers interested. When it comes to Thai, three out of 10 consumers said they are interested in the spicy-sweet dishes.

About the same proportion are also willing to try items with Mediterranean influences, including French and Greek fare, according to Technomic. Roti Mediterranean Grill, in particular, has been growing strong, with a menu revolving around pita bread sandwiches, fresh salad mixes, marinated vegetables and fire-roasted proteins like Mediterranean-spiced chicken, steak kabobs, combined with more Middle Eastern influences like falafel, hummus, baba gannoush, and tomato and cucumber salad.

Mediterranean dishes combining the healthier foods from Italian, French and Greek cuisine, such as olives, olive oil and fresh vegetables have also appeared in wraps at Au Bon Pain, Jason's Deli and Camille's Sidewalk Café, Hayden points out. Greek salads are still strong players on the quick-serve chain front, she says.

According to Technomic, women tend to prefer Spanish and Greek dishes, while men are more apt to go for Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Lebanese and Turkish flavors.

Spanish cuisine has had some influence in the chain restaurant market as well, less as tapas and more in the form of sauces. Romesco, a Catalan sauce, blends together roasted red peppers with almonds or other nuts, garlic, olive oil and tomatoes.

"Romesco sauce really seems to be on the cusp and almost in a way that chimichurri was a while ago," Hayden says. Chimichurri, a classic Argentinian marinade for steak, is a blend of parsley, olive oil, garlic and vinegar and appears as a dipping and appetizer sauce on menus. Manchego cheese, another classic Spanish ingredient with nutty undertones, is poised to gain more traction on menus as well, Hayden notes.

On the Italian front, the classic Caprese combination of basil, tomato and mozzarella is used as a topping for pizzas, burgers and other sandwiches. And pesto seems to be the "it" sauce at fast-casual chains, Hayden says.

As a more specified approach, chains are zeroing in on Italian regions beyond just Tuscany, Hayden says. "Calabrese is coming up, which means seafood is involved. Florentine with spinach and lemon is getting more popular as are Sicilian ingredients like spicy sausages, pepperonis and other meats," she says.

New Courses at Universities

Americans are increasingly interested in tropical cuisines, according to Technomic. That includes Hawaiian (28%), Caribbean (27%), Jamaican (22%) and Cuban (19%).

Executive Chef Aran Essig, CEC, CCA, at the University of Northern Colorado has experimented heavily with Caribbean and Cuban foods as of late.

"Instead of a plain rice dish, I may do a steamed rice in a banana leaf with island flavors like coconut milk, ground ginger and lemongrass," Essig says. After Cuban sandwiches opened up the students' eyes to that cuisine, Essig moved on to papas brava or roasted red potatoes mixed with chorizo, garlic and peppers.

He's also served a version of Cuban ropa vieja, slow-braising flank steak and tossing the meat with a Cuban-style sofrito sauce made with a tomato-onion-pepper base combined with fresh herbs and a touch of sherry. "I season everything with it — nice, sautéed vegetables and chicken, and I add it to soups while simmering or use it to finish meats." Oregano, cilantro and cumin are heavy Cuban spices, as are marinades that combine citrus like orange, lemon and lime.

When it comes to Caribbean food, Essig has experimented with grilled yucca, yams and fruits like mango and plantains, lots of beans, and spices like allspice, coriander and fennel.

The even more interesting part of this is that all of these foods dominate the "smart meal" station intended for lower sodium options as well as gluten- and allergy-free dishes.

From Guatemala to Oklahoma

With the exploration of regional Mexican cuisine comes the bridging into other areas of Latin America. Guatemalan cuisine, for example, is lesser-known in the United States, yet Oklahoma City has a large population of Guatemalans and a new café that is making its mark.

Veronica Del Cid and son Luidgi opened Café Kacao earlier this year. Being from Guatemala City, however, their approach is a little more sophisticated, a little more refined and presentation is key, compared to the more rustic Guatemalan restaurants opened by owners from more rural parts of the country.

Guatemalan cuisine has Mayan and Aztec origins, so beans, notably black beans, and corn, including corn tortillas, are a staple at almost every meal, Luidgi Del Cid says. Guatemalans also enjoy a sweet corn drink typically at night. Beyond that, there are a lot of soups, including pepian made with guajillo peppers and beef.

You'll find Mexican influences in Guatemalan cuisine, including avocados, tomatillo sauce and various chile peppers. At Café Kacao, the huevos rancheros are popular, with a base layer of black beans topped with three eggs and a ranchero sauce with pico de gallo, jalepenos, sour cream, avocado and fresh cheese, like a Latin-style mozzarella, Del Cid says.

Other popular dishes include two pork chops in a homemade mushroom sauce with rice and, if you can believe it, a Russian salad. In Guatemala, this potato-based salad is similar to the real Russian version except it includes less mayonnaise and peas are added. Even a Russian guest at the restaurant attested to its authenticity, Del Cid says.

If America is a "melting pot" of people with various ethnicities and heritages, then the current menu landscape at all types of restaurants and foodservice operations certainly reflects that. It's not just Mexican anymore; it's Oaxacan or Yucatan. Asian doesn't mean only Japanese and Chinese. And what's characteristic of one part of Italy may differ greatly from another.

The word "fusion" has gotten a bad reputation in recent years, says Hayden, yet, for better or worse, that word describes the nature of the recent ethnic "push." Maybe eclectic is a better way to put it. Either way, our diversified menus prove both chef and consumer are open to new flavors and fare.