Editor's Note: A previous version of this story has been updated to include the correct location of Arrows restaurant, which is Ogunquit, Maine.
The cuisines of Southeast Asia have been popular for decades in ethnic enclaves and casual independent restaurants in the United States. Vietnamese shops specializing in the noodle soup pho or bánh mì sandwiches have long dotted suburban strip malls and major urban centers. Thai restaurants have served as a slightly more exotic alternative to Chinese food for years.
But now the region’s flavor profiles have started to seep into the American mainstream, with even large chains featuring foods with Thai or Vietnamese accents, while dishes from those countries’ neighbors, including Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia, also are finding a place at the American table.
Sweet chile sauce, a condiment of simple syrup, garlic, chile flakes, vinegar and, traditionally, fish sauce, is popular in Thailand and Laos, and often served with marinated grilled chicken. It arguably became an all-American flavor in May of this year, when McDonald’s added Sweet Chili Sauce as a dipping option for its Chicken McNuggets.
The quick-service giant first tested the condiment during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Customers told us they loved the sweet and tangy flavor combination that Sweet Chili offered,” said McDonald’s USA marketing director Elizabeth Campbell.
Also in May, casual hamburger specialist Red Robin Gourmet Burgers added an appetizer of lightly breaded mushrooms served with sweet and spicy Thai chile sauce to its menu.
Corporate chef Dave Woolley said the sweet-spicy combination goes well with the umami of mushrooms.
“While we tried a variety of sauces, the Thai chile sauce is what we kept coming back to,” he said.
That sauce also is good with foie gras, said Parind Vora, chef of Braise, an upscale modern American restaurant in Austin, Texas, who recently added a dish of the fatty duck liver with Thai chile glaze to his menu. He augments the sweet chile sauce with balsamic reduction and serves it with 3 ounces of seared foie gras for $24.95.
He said the chile sauce acts like a gastrique.
“You have a lot of flavor, but you still taste the richness of the foie gras,” he said.
“I think Southeast Asian food as a category is getting popular,” said Jet Tila, a culinary consultant and chef of Wazuzu, a Pan-Asian restaurant in Las Vegas.
He added that consumers seem more interested in digging deeper into the cuisines of the region.
“For our restaurant, last year our most popular rice dish was pineapple rice, and this year it’s nasi goreng.”
Nasi goreng is the spicy fried rice of Malaysia and Indonesia. Tila makes a high-end $22 version with the Chinese sausage lap cheong, along with red roasted duck, shrimp, a simple Malay chile paste called sambal oelek, sweet soy sauce and some curry powder.
“It is the rice dish here,” he said.
He also is doing a variation of the classic green papaya salad popular in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
Traditionally, the salad is made fiery hot with Thai bird chiles along with palm sugar, citrus, cherry tomatoes, fish sauce and some kind of preserved seafood — dried shrimp or preserved mud crab in Thailand’s central plains, or a pungent fermented fish in northeastern Thailand and Laos. It’s a common side dish for grilled chicken, sort of like the cole slaw often served with American barbecue.
Good green papaya can be hard to find in the United States, Tila said, so he augments his salad with a western fruit with a similar flavor profile, Granny Smith apple.
“Granny Smith is a really fun flavor with that fish sauce and lime juice and palm sugar,” he said.
He adds mint, Thai basil and cilantro to the salad and serves it on top of fried trout.
“It has that yam flavor profile,” he said, referring to a class of Thai dishes, similar to salads but usually very spicy, that are flavored with the classic Thai triumvirate of lime, chile and fish sauce.
At Saucebox, a Pan-Asian restaurant in Portland, Ore., chef Alex Diestra gives his green papaya salad, which he sells as an appetizer for $8, more visual appeal by serving it with head-on prawns.
Probably the most talked about event in Southeast Asian food in the United States is the September opening in Washington, D.C., of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, a sister concept of Chipotle Mexican Grill.
That fast-casual burrito chain’s founder and president, Steve Ells, had long been saying that sustainable ingredients in a customizable format were the key to Chipotle’s success, not the burritos and tacos, according to Tim Wildin, ShopHouse’s director of concept development.
Wildin, whose mother is Thai, and who was himself born in Thailand, took Ells to visit Thailand and Singapore.
“I said, ‘You’re going to fall in love with the food,’ and he did,” Wildin said.
On the surface, the food at ShopHouse is similar to Chipotle’s burrito bowl — a burrito’s fillings without the tortilla wrapper. Wildin said the plating is a bit more composed than a burrito bowl.
Customers get a choice of jasmine rice — an aromatic white rice common in mainland Southeast Asia — brown rice or cold rice noodles based on the khanom jeen of northern Thailand. Literally translated as “Chinese snack,” khanom jeen noodles are traditionally topped with a spicy curry or similar sauce.
Next, customers have a choice of four proteins: chicken satay, grilled steak, pork and chicken meatballs or tofu.
Although satay is often identified with Thailand in the United States, the dish of coconut-marinated meat actually has its origins among the Malay people of Malaysia and Indonesia. It’s the basis of the chicken option.
The pork and chicken meatballs are made crispy with broken rice, a Vietnamese ingredient that’s literally broken grains of rice. They are seasoned with shallots, cilantro, garlic, ginger and what Wildin calls “chile jam.” It’s based on Thai nam prik phao, a rich condiment made of darkly roasted chiles.
The steak is crusted with coriander and cumin in the style of popular northern Thai salads such as seua rong hai, or crying tiger.
“We don’t call it ‘crying tiger beef,’ but that’s certainly the roots of the dish,” Wildin said.
The tofu is seasoned with turmeric, cumin and Thai chile.
Next, customers have a choice of vegetable — wok-fried Chinese broccoli with chile-vinegar, charred eggplant with chiles and Thai basil, blackened corn flavored with nam prik phao, and blistered long beans tossed with caramelized onions.
The dishes can be sauced with what Wildin calls “insanely hot” red curry, a more mild green curry or a tamarind vinaigrette, which Wildin said is an aromatic yam dressing without fish sauce, making it a viable option for vegans.
He said the vinaigrette has an array of Southeast Asian aromatics such as lemon grass, galangal and cilantro root, but the dominant flavors are lime, ginger and tamarind.
“We couldn’t call it ‘lime dressing’ because people would expect something different,” he said.
ShopHouse customers can choose from garnishes such as green papaya slaw; an herb salad of cilantro, mint and Thai basil that could accompany a traditional bowl of pho; or a mix of pickled radishes, carrots and cucumbers in a sort of sweet-pickle brine called achat, popular in southern Thailand and Malaysia.
Finally, ShopHouse dishes can be topped with crushed peanuts, crispy garlic or toasted rice, which the Thai and Lao use to add agreeable grit and nuttiness to some of their yam.
“I’m surprised by how much people have taken to the vegetables,” Wildin said, noting that so far they’re seeing a pretty even sales mix among the different options.
Noodles & Company, a 255-unit fast-casual chain, has long been serving Southeast Asian food. Chief administrative officer Dawn Voss said most of their Southeast Asian offerings are Thai, although they also have one Indonesian dish — a spicy peanut-sauce and rice-noodle stir-fry served with broccoli, carrots, cabbage, Asian sprouts, cilantro, crushed peanuts and lime.
She said that pad Thai is the most popular of those dishes and has been for years.
“It’s sort of the mac and cheese of that category,” she said. But the Indonesian Peanut Sauté does particularly well with males, she added.
In fine dining, Southeast Asian food has found a home at Arrows in Ogunquit, Maine, whose chef-owners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier make more-or-less-annual trips to the region.
“The food is incredibly vibrant, incredibly light and very satisfying,” Frasier said, adding that he grows lemon grass, Vietnamese coriander and all kinds of Asian basil in the restaurant’s garden.
“You need to pull the lemon grass before there’s a hard freeze,” Frasier said. “I guess they don’t have that problem in Thailand.”
He cleans the lemon grass, freezes it and uses it all year long.
He said that Maine’s cool climate means the herbs grow more slowly, but that also makes them more flavorful.
The herbs are incorporated into dishes such as Chiang Mai-style tempura haddock curry, with fried noodles, peanuts, fried shallots and Asian herbs.
“If you’re going to embrace these ingredients, it’s important that it be part of what your style is in the restaurant; it’s a whole sensibility,” he said.
It’s also important to integrate that food into the rest of the menu, he said, especially at a place like Arrows that serves tasting menus.
“In a real Western sense, there should be a progression in the food,” he said. So, for example, he might serve a whitefish sautéed with lemon grass, followed by duck wrapped in banana leaves with Southeast Asian aromatics and then smoked.
He warned that you also have to be cognizant of your customers’ tastes.
“You want to incorporate the flavors and vibrancy and some of the heat, but you can’t knock people over with it.”