Culinary experts predict new wave of Mexican dishes on U.S. menus
Nation's Restaurant News, Nov 6, 2006 by Pamela Parseghian
DALLAS -- Research and development executives plan to add more Mexican dishes to their menus, which often already include some fare from our neighbors south of the border, according to proprietary research conducted by Nation's Restaurant News and several experts on Mexican cuisine.
But while a panel of experts assembled for a "Cuisines of Mexico" session during the 2006 Culinary R&D conference held here recently agreed that Mexican dishes would continue to infiltrate U.S. menus at multiunit operations, they disagreed on what kinds of dishes would emerge in the future.
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"Mexican food will take the path Italian food took," predicted John Koch, vice president of research and development and culinary operations for Avado Brands, which operates the Don Pablo's Mexican Kitchen and Hops Grill Brewery chains. "You'll see more regional Mexican," on upcoming chain menus, he said.
"The consumer is ready to explore the regions of Mexico," said Stephen Kalil, director of culinary innovation and executive chef for Chili's Grill & Bar. "It is like an oil field that hasn't been mined."
However, when it comes to offering authenticity "the American public isn't ready," said Oona Settembre, who was recently named director of culinary research and development at On the Border. Dishes such as a true mole may be too much of a stretch for the palates of On the Border diners, Settembre said. Mole also does not always translate well for English speakers because of the easy-to-mispronounce name that can be misinterpreted.
However, others say North Americans are accepting the real thing. "We try to make things authentic, as long as it's reasonable," said Jonathan Rogan, manager of culinary development for El Pollo Loco, which is best known for its flame-grilled chicken.
Rogan noted that a recent rollout at his restaurants of the iced Latin beverage horchata--prepared with rice, milk, cinnamon and sugar--was well-received by guests.
Nevertheless, Mexican food often is misunderstood by those interpreting it in the United States, according to chef Margarita Carrillo de Salinas, a partner with Restaurante Don Emiliano, which is based in Mexico. For example, there are more than 100 types of mole," and it is definitely not just a chocolate sauce," Carrillo de Salinas said.
She suggested that menu developers needed to study the cuisine in Mexico.
"You have to be serious and know the culture well" before learning about the food, she said. Once corporate chefs understand where the food comes from, then they can study the cuisine and "know what to do with it," she suggested.
"Looking to the future, Mexican dishes look poised to maintain a major place on your menus," Bret Thorn told the Culinary R&D audience during a presentation on the subject. Thorn, NRN food editor, added, "Our research shows that nearly 60 percent of you expect their presence to increase." The same study found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed currently offer some sort of Mexican fare.