A flavor system is made out of the building blocks of a dish that give it a distinct signature. Banh mi is one example. Buffalo chicken is another, where the building blocks are Buffalo sauce, celery and blue cheese or ranch dressing. Once a system has been developed, perfected, tested, launched and marketed, the investment can be substantial. How can you maximize that investment? Finding creative expressions of that flavor system is a smart strategy. Not only have you brought your guests on board—and that’s particularly true with more adventurous flavor systems—but you’ve proven that it’s craveable and executable. Where else can it play on your menu? We’ve gathered 12 proven flavor systems that are worth exploiting, pushing their boundaries in on-trend ways that still express the essence of what made them successful in the first place.
1. Korean Barbecue
This ambassador of Korean cuisine makes a stately case for expanding its craveable flavor system beyond its regular profile. What’s not to love? Grilled meat, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pepper—the most common expression of Korean barbecue in the United States is sticky, savory, sweet and salty. Chefs are using different proteins, from lamb to pork to the traditional beef. They’re adding in a bit of fermented heat with gochujang, and they’re bringing in acidity, too, with pickled anything.
- Korean Steak Salad: Korean barbecue-marinated bistro steak, mixed greens, pickled vegetables, roasted tomatoes, tarragon dressing, olive oil, lemon, sea salt
—Punch Bowl Social, multiple locations
- Korean Fried Broccoli: Broccoli breaded with panko, deep-fried, then tossed in Korean gochujang sauce, sesame seeds and garlic dressing
—Dirt Candy, New York
Broth, herbs, noodles and meat don’t sound like the makings of a winning flavor system, but this Vietnamese-born soup turns it into a fragrant, savory, comforting bowl. Finding success here in urban pockets and college campuses, some chefs are extending the flavor system outside of the classic soup, dialing up both a modern-day vibe and promising a bit of adventure.
- Fries with Pho: A “Vietnamese-pho inspired” dipping sauce infused with the broth’s classic spices, charred onion, hoisin and ginger
—Fry Brothers, Washington, D.C.
- Pho Tacos: Flank steak simmered overnight in pho broth, onions, shiso leaves, hoisin-Sriracha drizzle
—Rakken Tacos, Los Angeles
3. Greek Salad
Classic salads have proven flavor systems that consumers recognize and respond to. The Greek salad, with its bright Mediterranean profile of crisp greens, olives, feta, red onion and oregano, translates beautifully into different arenas. The Idaho Potato Commission even borrowed the profile for its Crispy Greek-style Idaho Potato Fries with Greek Salad and Tzatziki Sauce, demonstrating yet again how so many flavor systems move seamlessly into the loaded fries platform.
- Greek Delight Crêpe with cheddar, onions, artichoke hearts, black olives and mushroom
—Crepeville, Sacramento and Davis, Calif.
- Greek Burger on a brioche bun with feta cheese, lettuce, tomato, black olives, pepperoncini and tzatziki sauce, served with housemade chips
—Somewhere Louisville, Louisville, Ky.
Shawarma has taken over where gyros left off, dazzling diners with succulent meat cooked on a spit and shaved thin, then often layered with fresh tomato and cucumber, tahini, hummus and pickled vegetables. Its flavor system is textbook craveable: salty, savory, fatty, acidic, rich. Over fries, it becomes Middle Eastern poutine. Shawarma also makes a clever bowl build, maybe over a base of quinoa or couscous, or in a slider, or as a flavor-forward salad topper.
- Copenhagen Chicken Pizza: Chicken shawarma, green pepper, onion, garlic, jalapeño
—Mega Pizza Grille, Culver City, Calif.
- Shawarma Fries: Free-range chicken and lamb brined in Eastern spices with finely chopped tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, amba, tahini and s’chug
—Gonzo, Portland, Ore.
This Spanish wine cooler has endless potential for variations, fitting beautifully into the sessionable drinking trend. The classic sees red wine, fruit, sugar and brandy. Today, that flavor system is getting upgraded, with rosé or bubbly, along with stone fruit, tropical fruit or anything seasonal. The booze component can bend, too, depending on the concept, from brandy to vodka, gin, tequila or rum.
- Peach Sangria with peach purée, Moscato
—El Barzon Restaurante, Detroit
- Sangria Marinated Skirt Steak with hearts of romaine à la Caesar and toasted bread crumbs
—Market Table, New York
6. Buffalo Chicken
This is now an American classic, living firmly in the realm of ubiquity on menus today. But that doesn’t mean it’s an exhausted flavor system. In fact, its well-worn familiarity makes it prime for adventurous innovation around its ingredient combination. At Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant in Boulder, Colo., a small plate of Buffalo Cauliflower sees vegan “blue cheese” dressing, celery and carrots. Further afield, and illustrating the creative potential of Buffalo chicken: Buffalo Frog Legs, with crispy vinegar chips, celery root, blue cheese and roasted garlic, at Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, Mass.
- Wood Burnt Pork Shank, “Buffalo style,” with carrots, celery curls and ranch dressing
—HSL Restaurant, Salt Lake City
- Buffalo Egg Rolls: Chopped Buffalo chicken and cheddar with a side of blue cheese or ranch dressing
—AJ Bombers, Milwaukee
We’re seeing a number of deli classics undergo modern upgrades from chefs today, particularly the Reuben sandwich. This craveable, nostalgic flavor system sees corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and rye bread. One variation is a Reuben soup enriched with Swiss cheese, strips of corned beef, caraway seed and choucroute, with rye croutons; another is a Reuben egg roll, stuffed with corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, then served with a dipping sauce of Russian or Thousand Island dressing.
- Seoul-Style Reuben: Housemade pastrami, napa cabbage dressed in kimchi vinaigrette, Urban Sweet & Smoky Sauce, and smoked Gouda on rye
—Urban Deli and Draft, St. Petersburg, Fla.
- Reuben Benedict: Corned beef, charred cabbage, pumpernickel muffin and Thousand Island hollandaise
—Haute Dish, Minneapolis
8. Banh Mi
This Vietnamese sandwich shows explosive growth on menus, with its spicy, salty, savory, sweet and aromatic flavor system. The basic format includes a pork product, pickled radish or carrot, mayonnaise, fresh cucumber, chile peppers or paste and fresh herbs, all tucked into a crisp baguette. It’s now standard street food in some urban areas, and a number of brick-and-mortar shops claim expertise, too—from Banh Mi Saigon in New York to Banh Mi & Co. in Chicago. Innovation is beginning to pop up—from banh mi omelettes to burgers and meatballs. Uni in Boston offers a nontraditional version: the Vietnamese Bologna Banh Mi Tartine with Maggi sauce, cilantro and jalapeño.
- Eggs Banhedict: Banh mi ingredients topped with poached eggs and rooster hollandaise
—1321 Downtown Taproom Bistro, Torrance, Calif.
- Chicken Banh Mi Salad: Mixed greens, soba noodles, all-natural diced chicken, fresh cilantro, cucumber, red bell pepper, pickled carrots, red onion, and jalapeño peppers tossed in sesame ginger vinaigrette
—Boudin Bakery, San Francisco
9. Cobb Salad
The Cobb salad is an American classic, making a winning flavor system with chopped greens, bacon, avocado, tomato, chicken, hard-boiled egg, chives, Roquefort cheese and red wine vinaigrette. It’s familiar. It’s got a perfect balance of soft and crisp, savory and sweet. Much like Buffalo chicken, it’s ripe for expansion, springing from a familiar base with all of the ingredients that have made it work for so long.
- Cobb Fries topped with Cobb salad ingredients
—Just Fries, Buffalo, N.Y.
- Fried Cobb Sandwich topped with jalapeño slaw
—Cypress Street Pint & Plate, Atlanta
10. Nashville Hot
We’ve seen how fried chicken has lit up menus recently, extolled for the comfort-food virtues of crispy, salty, juicy and delicious. Nashville Hot is giving Korean fried chicken a run for its money, standing out with a profile spiked with hot sauce or cayenne pepper. It’s typically served with pickles over white bread. Although Nashville Hot is not as prolific as, say, Buffalo, it’s a flavor system worth exploring—it comes with a sense of place, a narrative, and that sweet-spot combination of spicy, salty and familiar.
- Nashville Hot Scrapple with pickle vinaigrette and frisée
—Josephine, Nashville, Tenn.
- “Nashville Hot” Dog with bread & butter pickles, “hot” spice, potato chips and white barbecue sauce
—Swine & Sons, Winter Park, Fla.
11. Bloody Mary
The Bloody Mary is seeing plenty of innovation, thanks to the brunch boom, but most of it revolves around modern garnishes, like beef jerky, sliders, pickled okra and so on. That flavor system—which not only is so familiar to diners, but also carries with it a laid back, casual vibe— is worth exploiting.
- Bloody Mary Burger with a fried egg, bacon, Bloody Mary mayo, cheddar, Gouda, mixed greens and mustard vinaigrette—Matchbox, multiple locations
- Bacon Bourbon Mary: Bacon-infused bourbon, housemade Bloody Mary mix, cream cheese schmear
—Tom’s Urban, multiple locations
Some flavor systems just cry out for playful takes. S’mores, that classic campfire combination of graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallow, is seeing a lot of creative upgrades. At Bonfire in Washington, D.C., guests can order from a s’mores menu that includes peanut butter and banana with a housemade chocolate graham cracker, banana marshmallows and peanut butter ganache; and a blueberry lemon version that stars a crisp shortbread cookie with Chinese five-spiced ganache, blueberry compote and lemon marshmallow.
- S’mores Frappuccino: Marshmallow-infused whipped cream, milk chocolate sauce, a creamy blend of vanilla, coffee, milk and ice finished off with more marshmallowy whipped cream and a graham cracker crumble
—Starbucks, multiple locations
- You’re Killing Me Smalls: Chocolate-infused Mezcal El Silencio and añejo tequila, sugarcane, bitters, roasted marshmallow and maplewood smoke
—Bonfire, Washington, D.C.