This article first appeared in the 1 November 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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Taking a close look at ethnic flavors on American menus is no easy task. With Americans' overwhelming embrace of ethnic ingredients such as chipotle chiles or Parmesan cheese, it can be hard to tell where American flavors end and inter-national flavors begin.
Yet this just goes to show how ethnic foods continue to gain ground on American menus. Appetizers are particularly probable melting pots, with lettuce wraps, pot stickers and hummus placing among the top 10 appetizers that operators are thinking of adding to their menus. Entrées are more conservative, with familiar Mexican, Italian and Asian items strong in nearly all segments.
Says General Manager Frank Tognotti of Amaranta Cocina Mexicana in Los Angeles, "Americans feel the need for diversity in their dining habits, but, for the most part, within a certain comfort zone."
Between the commercial and noncommercial segments, the biggest differences aren't in the use of ethnic flavors but in the application and featured ingredient. Pasta with shrimp is a top seller among commercial restaurants. In comparison, more than 40% of noncommercial operators say spaghetti sells more than other pasta dishes. Along similar lines, popular beef tacos in the noncommercial segment become steak fajitas in the commercial segment. Meanwhile, both commercial and noncommercial segments rank Asian stir-fry as a hot-ticket item.
R&I's 2007 Menu Census shows a snapshot of ethnic menu items:
- Asian: Curry continues to gain ground in fine-dining operations, while commercial operations across the board have taken a shine to skewered meat preparations such as the satay sampler at Chino Latino in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, interest in Asian noodle bowls is growing in the noncommercial sector. Spurred by their variety and healthful image, Asian stir-fry sells well across the board.
- Italian: Meat and vegetable lasagnas are increasing in sales, leading some operators to add take-and-bake menu items to their grab-and-go selection. Pasta with shrimp reflects the growing trend of upscale menu touches, particularly in commercial dining. Meanwhile, operators are most likely to add ravioli as a new Italian entrées.