Inside the New Mexican Restaurant (Online Exclusive)

Melanie Zanoza Bartelme

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    From corner taco joints to national chains like Chipotle, American restaurant diners are certainly familiar with Hispanic foods. The National Restaurant Assoc. listed authentic ethnic cuisine No. 8 in its collection of the Top 20 food trends for 2017, with ethnic spices coming in at No. 11. Latin flavors appeared at No. 5 on its list of global flavors to watch. Hispanic and Mexican foods made up 60% of the international food market in the United States in 2016, and consumers are more likely to eat these cuisines in foodservice environments, according to research firm Mintel.

    “You can’t ignore the fact that Mexican eating has taken over the entire country,” says Sam Tamayo, chief innovation officer for La Tortilla Factory.

    What’s new is exactly what kinds of dishes consumers may be ordering.

    “Regional flavors from Mexico are probably the biggest overall trend,” says Daniel Marciani, executive development chef of the Ardent Mills Innovation Center. “I’m seeing a lot more genuine dishes from different regions of Mexico, as opposed to the Tex-Mex hybrids that have come to be known as Mexican cuisine in the United States. Overall, regional cuisine brings a lot more complexity to dishes and shows that Mexican cuisine isn’t one homogeneous thing.”

    As these trends suggest, Hispanic foods seem to have undergone a “gourmetification” in recent years as fine dining restaurants have exposed more and more consumers to high-quality versions of foods they may be familiar with and have helped them discover ones they haven’t yet encountered. In Chicago, Rick Bayless offers his versions of traditional dishes he’s discovered touring Mexico, and his now-classic Topolobampo was just awarded the 2017 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Mexican chef Enrique Olvera is credited with elevating everyday Mexican dishes in his iconic restaurant Pujol in Mexico City. He has also introduced his flavors to the United States in locations that will soon include both New York City and Los Angeles. René Redzepi’s recent Noma Mexico pop-up in Tulum, Mexico, celebrated the flavors of the country over a sold-out four-hour, 15 course dinner, and the most recent season of Top Chef filmed its finale using indigenous ingredients across Mexico.

    Even Taco Bell wants in on the action. The quickservice chain has steadily opened cantina locations that serve boozy slushies and invited some lucky consumers into its test kitchens for a gourmet tasting menu—all served on disposable plates. While Taco Bell’s foray into gourmet food may be seen as a marketing ploy, restaurants are shifting their thinking on what should make up a Mexican or Hispanic food menu.

    “I’m seeing more complex flavors and protein preparations and more vegetables,” says Marciani. “Mexico has many regions, and as we become more familiar with [them], ancient and heritage grains will be another way to differentiate one regional cuisine from the next.” He points to amaranth, blue corn, quinoa, sorghum, and Sonoran white wheat as options to experiment with.

    While most Americans are familiar with salsas like pico de gallo and guacamole, there may be an opportunity to draw on other perhaps lesser known sauces. Salsa macha is a spicy arbol chili–based salsa from the Veracruz state of Mexico, and escabeche is a sour vinegar- or citrus-based sauce made with chilies and vegetables. Offering convenient yet authentic versions of these traditional products or pairing their flavors in new ways should appeal to adventurous Millennials and time-strapped traditionalists alike.

    According to Eater, chefs have recently begun turning the spotlight to chamoy, a sweet and sour vinegar- and fruit-based condiment that has been traditionally used in candies and sauces, in an increasing number of foods, including in desserts and within barbecue sauces. These include the chicken wings offered by Chicago’s Estrella Negra and Whisk at Chicago WingFest 2017. Eater suggests artisanal chamoy sauces may also be something to watch out for on store shelves in the not-too-distant future.

    When it comes to trying these unfamiliar ingredients, age may matter. “In general, older diners will be more traditional, while younger, upper income consumers will be more exploratory,” explains David Sheluga, director of consumer insights at Ardent Mills. “A younger diner might be more open to quinoa salad, for example, where the quinoa is very visible. An older diner might be open to trying quinoa if it’s in a hot cereal or tortilla chip, where the quinoa is not very visible.”

    While some restaurants like these celebrate the complexity that’s already evident in traditional, regional Hispanic foods, others are choosing to play off the familiarity consumers have with Mexican food to create hybrid dishes that comingle the flavors of different cultures.

    “New products follow the fusion trend, mixing traditional Hispanic flavors and ingredients with various European and Asian cuisines,” writes research firm Packaged Facts, and in some respects, these hybrids are a natural extension of the fusion already evident in many Latin food cultures, where historically colonization and immigration of Europeans and Asians have shaped the food traditions of these countries; lomo saltado, the national dish of Peru, combines the Asian stir-fry of the country’s Japanese immigrants with the native ingredients of its indigenous Andeans.

    Peruvian food is a unique example of successful fusion of flavors and cuisines, due to its long multicultural history,” says Jeffrey Troiola, corporate chef/research and development for Woodland Foods. With a wealth of indigenous ingredients that include corn, potatoes, quinoa, kañiwa, tubers, chilies, beans, and lupins, he believes Peruvian cuisine is one to watch. Chicago restaurant Tanta celebrates Peruvian food’s Japanese influence and the country’s national liqueur, pisco. In the Bay Area, Chef Carlos Altamirano recently opened his Paradita Eatery, a fast-casual concept serving modern Peruvian street food in the Bay Area.

    Whatever the next hot cuisine, chefs and product developers alike should be sure to ensure that diners recognize the uniqueness and authenticity of the flavors and ingredients they’re using while working to present them as something safe and approachable, too. “Quality is quality,” says Gilberto Villasenor II, vice-president of marketing for dairy company V&V Supremo. “If you go to eat at a Mexican restaurant where the food is homemade and exploding with flavor, you don’t need a PhD or an MBA to know that what you are eating is delicious food.”


    Melanie Zanoza Bartelme is associate editor of Food Technology magazine ([email protected]).