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A New Frontier for Tacos

Biting into a puffy taco offers up a crispy, chewy shell holding a surprising combo of filling flavors. photos courtesy of gordon food service. Tacos venture into new terrain on full-service restaurant menus

By Gerry Ludwig

In addition to being one of the pioneering concepts of the food truck movement, Kogi BBQ—Roy Choi’s street food starring flavorful Korean-inspired meats, vegetables and sauce—helped open the minds of many chefs to the potential for taking non-Latin foods and serving them tucked inside a corn or flour tortilla.

That broadened outlook has become evident on the menus of full-service, varied menu restaurants across the country, as offerings of tacos filled with ingredients spanning a variety of cuisines has grown appreciably.

These tortilla-based mash-ups are proving extremely popular with dining consumers seeking bold twists on mainstream fare, and the operators that serve them are enjoying significant menu differentiation, largely using ingredients that are already in house.

Such is the case at The Library at the Public Theater in New York City, where acclaimed chef Andrew Carmellini’s casually eclectic menu includes a taco plate featuring grilled ruby red shrimp garnished with housemade spicy slaw and salsa verde. At Chicago gastropub Park Tavern, taco treatments include scrambled egg with mushrooms, garlicky greens and Brie, seared tuna with pickled vegetables, and pulled chicken with avocado and charred corn.

Fair Game Ingredients
Today’s FSR tacos are following the same path that burgers, pizza and hot dogs have taken. Increasingly creative toppings, cheeses, condiments and garnishes have made virtually all ingredients fair game, as long as the flavors are thoughtfully married.

The taco menu at chef Alex Stupak’s Empellón Cocina in New York City offers a laundry list of uniquely creative ingredient combinations, such as: lamb barbacoa with cucumber and olives; scallops with cauliflower and caper-raisin salsa; short rib pastrami with pickled cabbage; and shrimp with smoked potatoes and brown butter crema.

Whether authentic or inventive, bold fillings such as barbecue chicken, layered with crispy toppings, can define a restaurant’s taco offerings.

Ideal Vegetarian Platform
Unlike burgers and hot dogs, the taco can serve as the perfect platform for a variety of boldly flavored meatless dishes. Empellón Cocina’s menu includes a taco filled with roasted Brussels sprouts topped with almond mole; and a recent special combined maitake mushrooms with rajas, the traditional Mexican dish of grilled poblano pepper strips and onions. Often used as a topping or garnish, rajas is the featured filling in a vegetarian taco served at Tortaria in New York City’s East Village, garnished with black bean jam, avocado slices and pulled strands of Oaxaca cheese. Across town in the West Village, El Toro Blanco’s Josh Capon serves grilled cactus tacos garnished with quinoa and smoked chile vinaigrette. And at Salvation Taco in Manhattan’s Murray Hill district, chef April Bloomfield’s menu includes a wood-roasted cauliflower taco garnished with curried crème fraîche.

Creativity Trumps Authenticity
Of course, the trick to all of this flavor and ingredient experimentation is to create new taco variations that successfully combine originality with authenticity. No better examples may be found than at Mondo Taco in Los Angeles, where chef/owner Sam Spector serves more than two dozen boundary-pushing varieties, such as: braised short rib with horseradish slaw; buffalo chicken with blue cheese and celery relish; roast lamb with tzatziki; shredded pork with Dijon-mushroom cream; barbecued chicken with crispy cayenne onions; and vegetarian versions—including pineapple with onions, peppers, provolone and clove, and mushrooms with crispy onions, goat cheese and garlic aïoli.

The taco platform lends itself to healthful or hearty breakfast possibilities, like this savory mushroom-egg taco.

The Tex-Mex Influence
Two non-traditional tacos that originated in Texas—the puffy taco and the breakfast taco—are also finding their way onto full-service menus.

Made by quickly deep-frying and folding discs of rolled corn masa that “pockets” while cooking, the puffy taco has been a San Antonio staple for decades. The shell is both crispy and slightly chewy, making for a deliciously singular taco-eating experience.

Now, chef Josef Centeno is thrilling Los Angeles diners with freshly fried puffy tacos at his new street-food concept Bar Ama, filling them with housemade chorizo spiced with ancho chile and cumin, grilled shrimp with jalapeño cream, grilled pork and pineapple, and a meatless variation filled with fried potato and cheese balls topped with a spicy chive sour cream.

At once both delicate and indulgent, the puffy taco may be one of the best kept secrets in American cuisine. Now that it has made its way to the West Coast, other regions of the country may soon be getting a taste of this Texas-born treat.

The breakfast taco is the defining dish of Austin, Texas. First served in restaurants in the 1970s, it is primarily composed of egg, potato and cheese in a flour tortilla, with additional proteins and garnishes distinguishing each version.

There has been a recent mini-explosion of breakfast tacos appearing on New York menus, particularly in Brooklyn. At all-day breakfast spot Seersucker, chef Robert Newton fills his tacos with a combination of housemade chorizo and salsa roja, while nearby Gueros Brooklyn loads its version with bacon, refried beans, avocado and rajas. And at smoked-meat haven Brisket Town in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, each evening’s trimmings and burnt ends are served in breakfast tacos the following morning.

The rapid ascent of the breakfast taco’s popularity in America’s most influential food town suggests that it is well positioned for mainstream adoption in the near future.

About The Author

Gerry Ludwig

Chef Gerry Ludwig is a nationally recognized food writer, speaker and trend tracker, and leads the Culinary R&D department for Gordon Food Service, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.