There’s no question that quinoa is the menu ingredient of the year. It sits squarely at the intersection of health, versatility and compatibility with other ingredients. The fact that it’s exotic, underutilized and represents a break from the same old, same old are also factors, but perhaps its major selling point for many is its nutritional profile. Not only is it highly nourishing, but it is also gluten free. This last quality is especially important, considering that a study earlier this year by Port Washington, N.Y.-based The NPD Group revealed that one-third of American adults say they want to cut down on or eliminate gluten from their diets. Recognizing the appeal of quinoa, operators have embraced it with gusto.
Super salads. Quinoa is a grain that’s indigenous to the Andean region of South America, so it’s no surprise to see it appearing on Latin menus. Brasília, Brazil-based Giraffas, a chain with 400 units in that country and 10 units in the U.S., features it prominently in dishes like Quinoa, Greens & Steak Salad. Pollo Campero, a chicken specialist that hails from Guatemala City, Guatemala, and operates about 50 units in the U.S., promises the “heart and soul of Latin cooking” and delivers with the Peruvian Quinoa Salad. It starts with dried quinoa and adds simple ingredients like tomato and onion along with a savory dressing. Los Angeles-based California Pizza Kitchen takes a more global approach. The Quinoa + Arugula Salad marries asparagus, sun-dried tomatoes, red onion, toasted pine nuts and feta with homemade Champagne vinaigrette. And among the line of salads that Seattle-based Starbucks introduced this summer is the Zesty Chicken & Black Bean Salad Bowl, with spring greens, fired-roasted corn and quinoa.
The grain has jumped the fence to appear on non-restaurant menus, too. Parsippany, N.J.-based Kings Food Markets offer an extensive selection of prepared foods that includes specialty items like Kale and Quinoa Salad. Headquartered in Madison, N.J., Gourmet Dining, which provides foodservice to a host of campuses and other on-site operations, puts it in an updated Waldorf Salad.
Sophisticated sidekicks. Many restaurateurs are employing quinoa as a replacement for starches like couscous or rice. For example, at Ralph Brennan’s Café B in Metairie, La., Shrimp Creole has been served atop green onion-quinoa salad. When Dallas-based La Madeleine Country French Café launched a dinner menu in its Washington, D.C., stores this spring, it paired Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin with quinoa pilaf. Similarly, Gordon Biersch, based in Chattanooga, Tenn., plates both salmon and ahi tuna with kale-quinoa pilaf, and the chain has also offered Stuffed and Baked Chicken with apple-cucumber quinoa. Bowls are a new category at Deerfield, Ill.-based Cosí, where they use grains as a carrier for other ingredients. Both the Adobo Chicken with Avocado Bowl and the Stuffed Portobello Bowl are built on a base of basmati rice and quinoa. First Watch, based in Bradenton, Fla., jumped on the bandwagon early with the Quinoa Power Bowl , packed with goodies like kale, house-roasted tomatoes, lemon chicken and fresh herbs in a basil pesto sauce. And quinoa has done double duty at Seasons 52, featured in both the Quinoa and Citrus Salad and the Triple Grain Quinoa side dish with watermelon, dried cherries and mint.
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Utility player. Quinoa’s mild flavor allows it to be used in some unexpected menu applications. At three-unit LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto, Calif., the Rhubarb-Quinoa Crunch puts it front and center in a dessert served with Greek yogurt. At the other end of the menu, customers can start their day with Ancient-Grain Buttermilk Pancakes made from whole-grain farro and quinoa. The grain has similar stretch at Rockville, Md.-based Silver Diner, where it appears at breakfast in Quinoa-Coconut Pancakes and later in the day with Santa Fe Roasted Veggies, a vegan dish that gets a flavor boost from Oaxaca black-bean salsa and salsa roja.
Orange County, Fla., public schools step outside the box with an annual Chefs Move to Schools promotion, in which noted local chefs create healthful lunches with the help of students. Among this year’s items is the Keen What? Wrap, a sandwich that contains quinoa, yellow and red peppers, and hummus. And in a real ethnic mash-up, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro’s summer menu boasts Summer Vegetable Quinoa “Fried Rice,” in which wok-toasted quinoa is crowned with a sunny-side-up egg.
Looking ahead, quinoa will pick up speed on menus as customers become better acquainted with it. While operators will continue to exploit its healthful properties, its real selling point will be the creative and tasty uses to which it’s being put around the clock and around the menu.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the U.S., she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the website.