Sponsored by TABASCO® Foodservice.
While the overall restaurant scene has become increasingly more casual, the American palate has progressively become more sophisticated. So how can restaurant operators bridge this gap? The growing trend adopted by many is to liven up menus with global flavors originating from the world’s street carts.
Street foods offer the casualness of portability with the adventure of sampling flavors from far-flung places. According to research firm Datassential, the appearance of street foods on menus has risen by 332 percent in the last four years. Here are some street foods you’ll find on American menus and a variety of interpretations:
Taiwan: Wow Bao
It’s no surprise that Rich Melman and his Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises adopted the idea of serving Taiwan-style bao buns from several locations in Chicago. The white pillow buns are stuffed with slow-cooked meats. Two versions are available: one is closed and, when bitten into, reveals either teriyaki chicken, spicy kung pao chicken, Thai curry chicken, spicy Mongolian beef or BBQ pork. An open faced version features sriracha chicken or hoisin-glazed pork belly. Even breakfast baos are available with traditional American ingredients (egg, bacon, spicy sausage), though more adventurous palates may go for the coconut custard.
Thailand: Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza & Grill
This concept, with 16 units spread across Nevada and California, demonstrates that you can borrow street food flavors to create excitement on any menu. Sammy's offers, for example, a Thai shrimp pizza with veggies, cilantro, scallions, peanuts, lime, mint and a spicy Thai peanut sauce. You won’t likely find this on a street cart anywhere, but it makes for an interesting pizza with international flair. By the way, if a customer is looking for something more authentic, Sammy’s offers Thai Chicken Satays (with spicy peanut ginger sauce) and a variety of other street-inspired foods from Europe and Asia. It’s all about catering to a variety of tastes and palates.
Mexico: Red Lobster
Who would have thought this all American seafood giant would embrace a cutting edge trend, but there on its menu you’ll find one of Mexico’s most pervasive street foods — grilled corn. Red Lobster remains true to the trend’s origins by topping grilled corn on the cob with cilantro-lime butter and cheese.
Asia: Asian Box Street Food
Featuring items from food stalls throughout Asia, this multi-unit concept features a Chipotle Grill-style setup where customers can select from a variety of Asian ingredients that are served in portable boxes. Also available are several “chef signature boxes,” including The Ox Box (double beef, jasmine rice, veggies, caramel egg, sriracha and “Asian street dust — a dry blend of sweet, salt and spices).” For customers who want to compose their own box, they first select a base (rice or noodles), a protein (chicken, pork, beef, tofu and shrimp), toppings (a variety of veggies) and a sauce (tamarind vinaigrette, sriracha, fish sauce and peanut sauce). Billed as a farm-to-box concept, Asian Box Street Food offers sustainably grown food that contains no hormones or antibiotics.
South/Central America: Toro Toro
Here’s a multi-unit concept from acclaimed chef Richard Sandoval, who features the flavors of South and Central America. On his lunch and brunch menus you’ll find a Latin street food favorite, the torta, a sandwich featuring many ingredients that are typically served in tacos and burritos. Sandoval has chosen instead to borrow the idea of a torta and give it an American twist by featuring pan-seared salmon or chicken salad. For those seeking a more authentic street food, Toro Toro offers Anticucho skewers, a Peruvian offering featuring grilled steak, chicken and shrimp and a dipping sauce. His plan, apparently, is to offer menu items for both the adventurous and the risk averse.
Holland: Le Pain Quotidien
This European bakery concept, with units from coast to coast, offers mini Dutch pancakes made with buckwheat flour and yeast. Known as poffertjes, these pancakes have a light, spongy texture and are a popular Dutch winter street food served in cardboard boxes. Though they are lighter than American style pancakes, they connect with an American audience because they are served with maple butter, maple syrup and powdered sugar.
India: Curry Up Now
Nearly a third of the menu at the average Indian restaurant includes street foods, according to Datassential. That’s considerably more than any other menu type. That’s certainly the case at Curry Up Now, a fast casual concept with several units throughout California. It devotes a large portion of its menu to Indian street snacks and street foods, such as Samosa (stuffed pastry) and Vada Pav (mashed potato fritters in a buttered bun). To maintain a footing with the uninitiated, Curry Up’s menu also offers Indian style burritos called kathi rolls. The word “burrito” is used on the menu, says founder Akash Kapoor, “because everyone knows what a burrito is, but not everyone knows what a kathi roll is.
Vietnam: Atlanta Bread
One of the most popular street food sandwiches to take hold in America is the Banh Mi, which originates from the streets of Vietnam. The traditional sandwich features a whole baguette, some type of pork and a crunchy vegetable slaw marinated in fish sauce. The sandwich is then topped with sliced jalapeños and fresh cilantro. But many restaurants, including Atlanta Bread, with nearly 170 units scattered along the east coast, offer a wide range of variations. Atlanta Bread’s version features poached salmon, pickled cabbage and carrots, avocado, edamame and a garnish of fresh basil on parsley. Authenticity is merely a starting point for creativity.