Slam Dunks

06 April 2006
Slam Dunks

Dipping sauces delight diners and unleash kitchen creativity.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Scott Hume, Executive Managing Editor

The differences between children's menus and what's offered to adults go beyond portion sizes. Kids are invited to have fun, even to play with their food, which often includes chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, french fries and other morsels that can be dipped into sauces or condiments.

But kids shouldn't have all the fun, which McDonald's recognized with its 1983 introduction of Chicken McNuggets, accompanied by a choice of dipping sauce and positioned as a suitable-for-adults finger food.

Popularity of dipping sauces has exploded in recent years, thanks in part to the proliferation of Asian foods. The move to less-stuffy, more-social, shared dining experiences also drives the trend.

"I encourage people to use their hands. It's a great way to make a table more relaxed. In Europe and Southeast Asia, diners understand that. Americans have shied away from it, but that is changing," says Pino Maffeo, who learned the joys of dipping sauces working at Patricia Yeo's Pazo and AZ fusion restaurants in New York City.

As chef-owner of Sapa in New York City, Yeo continues to explore interesting dipping-sauce combinations. On its late-night menu, fried boneless chicken is served with three sauces; even classic steak and fries gets chipotle-apricot sauce as a partner.

Freeing the Imagination

The power to transform a traditional dish into something completely new and fresh in flavor is one of the great appeals of dipping sauces, says Mark Grimes, corporate chef with Glenview, Ill.-based Restaurants-America, which operates Bar Louie, Red Star Tavern and other casual-dining concepts.

"Take something such as grilled-chicken satay," he says. "With different dipping sauces you not only add flavor variety, you can hook people unfamiliar with the item into giving it a try. They may take the leap if the sauce is grounded in something familiar."

Bar Louie small plates include batter-dipped onion rings with chipotle and ranch-style sauces, and pot stickers with Thai chile and peanut sauces.

Grimes says that an equally valuable benefit of dipping sauces is how they energize kitchen staff. "Chefs love dipping sauces because they let them freshen a familiar dish," he says. "Often the sauce is where the creativity is."

A wide range of prepared sauces is available, making them easy to menu. Scratch-made sauces can be prepared in volume and in advance, so they needn't be part of daily kitchen tasks, says Robin Stotter, vice president and corporate executive chef for Orlando-based E-Brands Restaurants, which operates AquaKnox in Las Vegas, multi-unit Timpano Italian Chophouse and Samba Room and other concepts.

"Operators can get any ingredient, any day," says Stotter. "If you dream it, you can do it. So chefs start thinking about combinations of flavors and textures. They can be Mediterranean or Asian, or both; spicy, sweet or herbal; infused oils or mayonnaise-based aioli. The trend is to simple flavors, so dipping sauces don't have to be complicated. They just need to appeal to the senses."

Timpano menus tuna carpaccio with lemon aioli for dipping; Peruvian Fried Calamari at Samba Room can be plunged into chimichurri tartar sauce.

Centers of Attention

All the attributes that make dipping sauces so popular with diners and chefs open the door to innovative entrées as well as appetizers.

At Kantina, which opened last month in Newport Beach, Calif., Chef de Cuisine Robert Herrera marinates a 32-ounce porterhouse steak for two days in a pesto of olive oil, cotija cheese, garlic, jalapeÁ±o chiles and cilantro. After grilling, the steak is served sliced, fajita-style, with house-made tortillas and the pesto sauce on the side for dipping. Chef Stephane Beaucamp serves cumin-crusted steak with Tangy Blueberry Sauce at Sutra Lounge, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Lobster and Gruyère baked in a flaky crust is paired with honey-mustard, brandy-tarragon and lemon-caper dipping sauces at Miami's Barton G. The Restaurant.

What's next? Sushi Samba in New York City serves five "dipping salts" with its rock shrimp tempura appetizer.

Dip Decisions

Dipping-sauce ingredient combinations are nearly limitless. Combine favorite flavors or pair sweet and hot elements.

  • Avocado-ranch sauce with Southwestern egg rolls, Chili's Grill & Bar, multiple locations

  • Banana-chili sauce with duck spring rolls and achara (pickled green papaya) relish, Pineapple Grill, Kapalua, Hawaii

  • Brandy-tarragon, hot-mustard and lemon-caper sauces with lobster-and-Gruyère pot pie, Barton G. The Restaurant, Miami Beach

  • Cajun-horseradish sauce with breaded, fried portobello mushrooms and french fries, Signature's Bar & Grill at Baywood Greens, Long Neck, Del.

  • Southwestern Chipotle Barbeque sauce (above) with Chicken Selects, McDonald's, multiple locations

  • Chinese black-vinegar sauce with steamed shrimp-and-chive dumplings, Tenpenh Restaurant, Washington, D.C.

  • Coconut-curry sauce with fried chicken tenders, Rainforest Cafe, multiple locations

  • Fruited-lime sauce with ginger-chili shrimp tempura, Amherst College (catering), Amherst, Mass.

  • Ginger-pesto sauce with fried calamari and jicama slaw, Masck, Deerfield, Ill.

  • Mango-ginger-teriyaki sauce with grilled, marinated boneless chicken breast, Mango's Restaurant & Lounge, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

  • Sweet tomato-basil sauce with fried cheese raviolis, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va.

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