Trendy ahi and tried-and-true albacore duke it out for chain menu dominance

When is a fish not a fish? When, sans fins, gills and bones, it’s safely hidden in a six-ounce tin. For many years that’s how Americans consumed tuna, which, minus the scary fishy parts, was No. 1 in total U.S. seafood consumption by a wide margin. Since the beginning of this decade, however, canned tuna’s dominance has been eclipsed by the more glamorous shrimp. Nonetheless, it remains a consumer favorite, and the surging popularity of ahi in all its untinned glory has given the fish a whole new lease on life.

Ahi is coming on strong. The steadily growing acceptance of ahi has made it a fixture across many chain menus, starting with the appetizer listing. Probably because of its moniker, ahi, which is the Hawaiian name for the popular and readily available yellowfin species, frequently appears in Asian-theme applications. A great example is the seared ahi starter at Rock Bottom Brewery, which is rolled in cracked black pepper and sesame seeds and served over Asian slaw. At Grand Lux Cafe, it appears in a crispy, flash-fried sushi roll that’s plated with wasabi cream and soy dipping sauces, while at Cheesecake Factory, ahi is served carpaccio-style with sides of wasabi pesto and an aïoli with togarashi, or Japanese red chile. Houlihan’s [3] offers tuna won tons, and P.F. Chang’s [4] rolls ahi in Chinese spices and wok-sears it. Bandera, the five-unit sibling of the larger Houston’s chain, offers tuna poke as a Hawaiian-style starter of raw fish served with shrimp and avocado.

Ahi also is widely featured in salads, many of which are, predictably, Asian-theme. The ahi tuna chopped salad at Outback [5] Steakhouse is topped with won tons and tossed with wasabi vinaigrette, and the sashimi tuna salad at Houston’s is topped with mango and tossed with cilantro-ginger vinaigrette. Claim Jumper [6], however, breaks the mold with the Mediterranean ahi salad, an update of the traditional niçoise, with ingredients such as kalamata olives, chèvre and mustard-herb vinaigrette.

Ahi stars at the center. Unlike its canned counterpart, ahi figures prominently on the center of the plate. The Cheesecake Factory [7] crusts it with wasabi and panko, then sears it. Ruth’s Chris [8] stacks it with lump crabmeat and serves it sizzling. In keeping with its Southwestern theme, Road-house Grill simply mesquite-grills it.

Ahi is showing up in sandwiches as well. Yardhouse features an ahi steak sandwich topped with Swiss cheese and green-pepper-corn aïoli on grilled r ye bread. At J. Alexander’s, it is offered as a burger. Special mention must go to Houlihan’s, which upgraded the humble fish taco using seared rare ahi, accompanied by jícama for crunch and cilantro-lime sour cream for flavor.

But albacore is still the standard. Typically found in cans and prized for the whiteness of its meat, albacore tuna may have been overshadowed a bit by the trendier ahi. Still, it maintains pride of place on sandwich menus. Au Bon Pain [9] updates basic tuna salad with a tooth-some trio: a Southwest tuna wrap with chile-Dijon mustard, a spicy-tuna sandwich with jalapeño mayo, and a tuna melt with Swiss cheese and asparagus.

A number of sandwich menus make a Mediterranean connection, tying the item to both the classic French niçoise salad and the healthful regional diet. Schlotzsky’s [10] promotes signature albacore Mediterranean tuna salad in a wrap and a home-style, oven-toasted sandwich. Corner Bakery [11] touts the Mediterranean olive bread that partners with its tuna salad. And fast growing ‘wichcraft, based in New York City, offers a Sicilian version with fennel, black olives and lemon on a baguette.

Where to from here? The use of ahi will rise on chain menus as consumers become more comfortable and chefs become more creative. At the same time, albacore will more than hold its own, especially as competitors in the hotter-than-a-pistol sandwich segment use it as the building block for increasingly innovative items. Togo’s [12] recently introduced a lemon-pepper tuna sandwich with cracked black pepper that mimics a casual-dining entrée and represents the shape of things to come.