Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Flavor Expedition 2019: Part 1 In major trend-driving cities, global palettes expand

Global innovation abounds (clockwise from top left): Milk Cap tea at Bingo Tea in Chicago; Toothpick Lamb at Sichuan Impression in Los Angeles; Con’Con at Henry in New York; Ibérico Katsu Sando at Ferris in New York; Tropical Arepa at Chicago’s Rica Arepa; and Beef Katsu at Bar Ramone in Chicago.
PHOTO CREDIT: Gerry Ludwig

This year marks the 17th year our team has conducted street-level trends-research tours. Making visits to carefully targeted new restaurants in the same three cities—New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—year after year, provides a practical, real-world perspective on the evolution of foods and flavors in American foodservice.

In 15 days that averaged 19 hours per day, Gerry Ludwig’s team visited 116 new restaurants across the three cities, tasting 1,205 dishes along the way.

By far, this year’s greatest takeaway was the growing influence of global cuisines on mainstream menus. Also, we saw more experimentation and less adherence to authenticity in the global cuisines and dishes that have risen in popularity.

Gerry Ludwig

At Bavel in Los Angeles, a ragout of ground duck and ’nduja sits atop creamy hummus.

Middle Eastern Mash-Up

As inevitably happens when global cuisines enter the mainstream, the newest Middle Eastern restaurants are moving away from strict authenticity in their dishes and are incorporating an array of ingredients that are familiar and highly popular with consumers, simultaneously increasing appeal to a wider audience, promoting trial, and creating menu differentiation.

We encountered our first example of this movement during our research two years ago at Kismet in Los Angeles, where Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, both chef/owners, meld California cuisine with Middle Eastern flavors in such dishes as Roasted Radicchio Tart built upon a puff-pastry square and topped with feta, pine nuts, onion jam and honey. Halva Toast features housemade sesame-seed/honey-paste spread on toasted brioche.

Middle Eastern mash-ups: (clockwise from top left): X’tiosu Kitchen’s Chicken Shawarma Taco; Fire-Roasted Cauliflower at Dez; X’tiosu’s Tabbouleh Oaxaca Salad; and Bavel’s Oyster Mushrooms over Stinging Nettle Purée.

This year, one of the hottest new restaurant openings in Los Angeles was Bavel, acclaimed for both its unique approach to Middle Eastern cuisine and its dramatic interior design. Ori Menashe, chef/owner, cleverly mashes foie gras and halva into a unique spread which he serves with date purée, black sesame seeds and slices of toasted buckwheat loaf. Ground duck and the spicy Italian salami spread ’nduja are simmered into a ragout and served on a base of creamy hummus. And oyster mushrooms are skewered kebab-style, wood-grilled and served atop a bright green stinging-nettle purée.

This new direction is also appearing in the fast-casual segment, most notably the “Oaxacan Arabesque” cuisine served at X’tiosu Kitchen in Los Angeles, where brothers and chef/owners Ignacio and Felipe Santiago combine the flavors of their Mexican heritage with Middle Eastern dishes discovered while working at local Lebanese restaurants. Their Chicken Shawarma Taco defines the movement in a single dish: classic spit-roasted chicken served on corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, bright pink sticks of pickled turnip, and an “Arabesque Salsa,” based on the Lebanese garlic sauce toum, which they enhance with hot chiles and ground nuts.

Mideast Roots, Mainstream hits

Chefs are weaving Middle Eastern flavors throughout a variety of menu favorites:

  • Caesar Salad: Romaine, shaved fennel, puffed bulgur, burnt croutons, Parmigiano, anchovy vinaigrette —Mh Zh, Los Angeles
  • Oaxacan Tabbouleh: Parsley, onion, tomato, cilantro, cactus, green chiles, citrus —X’tiosu Kitchen, Los Angeles
  • Beef Brisket Burger: Matbucha, kasseri cheese, radicchio, white sauce, toasted brioche bun —Celestine, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Halloumi Fries: Batter-fried halloumi cheese, tzatziki dipping sauce —Panorama Middle Eastern Grill, New York

Katsu Sando Innovation

The katsu sando is a Japanese sandwich consisting of a meat cutlet that is breaded, deep fried, topped with raw shredded cabbage and a drizzle of tonkatsu sauce, and placed between slices of Japanese milk bread. Once assembled, the sandwich is cut into square or oblong pieces, crusts trimmed. This results in an eating experience that is at once both crunchy and delicate.

The sandwich has been receiving significant press of late, particularly versions that incorporate extravagantly costly cuts of Wagyu beef, such as the $180 Ozaki version served at Don Wagyu in New York, and the $100 Wagyu Katsu Sando at Kaisho in Chicago.

But well beyond these “1 percenter” versions, chefs in all three of our research cities are creating and serving innovative variations of the sandwich, providing clear validation of the opportunity that operators have to distinguish their menus with a signature “sando.”

Katsu sando is neatly boxed at Konbi in Los Angeles (left); at Katana Kitten in New York, mortadella ups the flavor, along with Dijon and tonkatsu sauce (right).

A prime example is the Mortadella Katsu Sando served at Japanese cocktail bar Katana Kitten in New York, featuring a thick slice of breaded and fried Italian mortadella topped with Dijon mustard and tonkatsu sauce.

The over-the-top Sioux City Sandwich at nearby Existing Conditions is a craveable layering of crispy pork katsu with sauce gribiche, tonkatsu sauce, pickled tomato paste and shaved red onion.

The Beef Katsu at Spanish restaurant Bar Ramone in Chicago cleverly morphs the sando into a Basque pintxo, placing a crisp round of panko-crusted brisket atop aïoli-slathered baguette, finished with a tonkatsu demi-glace sauce.

Tiny storefront Konbi in Los Angeles has created an entire system around the preparation and packaging of its four varieties of katsu sando, to the delight of the daily throngs that line up at the takeout window. A classic Pork Katsu Sando is offered, alongside a crispy eggplant version topped with cabbage and burnt onion dashi; an Egg Salad dressed with scallion, mayonnaise and Dijon; and a Layered Omelette with dashi mayonnaise and Dijon. The finished product is placed in a simple yet elegant custom-designed to-go box that exactly fits each perfectly prepared sandwich.

Our research team found the category’s gold standard in the Ibérico Katsu Sando from Greg Proechel, executive chef at Ferris in New York, who breads a thin slice of Ibérico pork collar and deep fries it perfectly rare. The katsu is dressed with a plum, hoisin and shrimp-paste condiment, and the assembled sandwich is then griddled to produce a dual layer of crunch. It may have been the best dish of this year’s research, and, at $18, a true culinary bargain.

Standout: Kaya

Kaya is a sweet coconut-based jam native to Malaysia and Indonesia that may be used to create a variety of uniquely delicious sweet and savory dishes. While we have found kaya offered occasionally on menus the last few years, its appearance at several new restaurants in New York warrants a callout.

Of particular note is Malaysian fast-casual concept Kopitiam, whose classic Kaya Toast, a simple assemblage of toasted, crustless, white bread generously filled with housemade kaya, provides the perfect introduction to this craveable spread.

In a more mainstream application, vegetarian spot Charley St blends kaya with roasted beet purée as a topping for toast garnished with carrot-apple slaw and goat cheese (pictured here).

Kaya can easily be made in-house on a weekly basis. Its sweet tropical flavor holds breakout potential as a differentiator on breakfast and brunch menus. This could be as simple as serving a small ramekin in addition to butter and conventional jams with bread and bakery baskets. And the current popularity of coconut oil as a component of healthy eating could certainly drive interest and promote trial.

Charley St in New York tops toast with sweet kaya, roasted beet purée, carrot-apple slaw and goat cheese.

Modern African Influence

Although the foods and flavors of Africa are still largely outside of the mainstream, two New York-based chefs are working to bring them a bit closer, with new restaurants that reflect personal interpretations of the cuisine and draw inspiration from the worldwide African diaspora that stretches from the Caribbean to the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the American South.

At restaurant Henry at Life Hotel, chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson’s self-described “Pan-African” cuisine mashes flavors from Asia and the Middle East into dishes that include a Lamb Kebab served with housemade kimchi and za’atar yogurt, and griddled Roti Bread with spinach chutney and beet hummus.

Asia meets the American South in his signature Collard Green Salad with adzuki beans, cashews and coconut dressing, and European influences are evident in dishes such as Pan-Roasted Scallops with cilantro pistou and Mushroom Yassa in Dijon mustard sauce.

Playing with Modern African flavors (from left: Lamb Kebab with kimchi and roti at Henry; Djolof Fried Rice studded with soft bay leaves at Berber Street Food; and Henry’s Pan-Roasted Scallops with cilantro pistou.

At storefront fast-casual concept Berber Street Food, Diana Tandia, chef/owner, serves “Afro-fusion” cuisine, with a menu that crisscrosses the globe in dishes such as Senagalese Empanadas stuffed with curried beef, Parsley Falafel Croquettes accompanied by a saffron tahini sauce, Marrakech Vegetable Tagine with turmeric sauce, and Kofta Meatballs with Beet Tzatziki.

While both chefs approach African cooking with their own unique vision, their menus intersect with the dish jollof rice, a highly craveable West African specialty that may be the cuisine’s best-kept secret. The rice is simmered in a purée of tomatoes, onion, fresh hot peppers, dried chiles, ginger, curry powder and thyme.

Johnson’s signature Con’Con is based on a molded disk of jollof rice that has been griddled until crispy and topped with curried eggplant, while Tandia’s Djolof Fried Rice is topped with grilled chicken or tempeh and served in a generous mound, studded with soft bay leaves plucked from the cooking broth.

The popularity of today’s culinary mash-ups is the result of chefs taking familiar ingredients and creatively combining them with global flavors to create exciting new taste combinations. Dining consumers seeking that experience need to look no further than Modern African cuisine.

Arepas: Caracas to Chicago

When the Caracas Arepa Bar began serving Venezuelan arepas in New York’s East Village in 2003, it was an immediate hit and has since become a neighborhood institution. We first visited the restaurant as part of our 2004 research, and we too fell in love with the unique handheld. At the time, we incorrectly predicted that the Venezuelan arepa would soon sweep the country, and are still puzzled as to why it has remained a sleeper in the realm of global handhelds. That tide may be turning, or at least in Chicago, where three new shops specializing in the Venezuelan arepa have opened in the past year.

We specify “Venezuelan” to distinguish it from the more familiar Colombian arepa, which is simply a flat, griddled cornmeal cake that is topped with assorted garnishes. The Venezuelan version is a carrier, made from a much lighter dough that becomes fluffy when griddled, and then split clamshell-style before being generously filled with boldly flavored meats, cheeses, vegetables and sauces.

The arepas at the three new restaurants in Chicago each have attributes that distinguish them and make it difficult to choose a favorite.

BienMeSabe offers the greatest variety, including the Bochinche, brimming with grilled longaniza sausage, hand-stretched cheese, avocado and sweet plantain, and the Mochima, with sautéed shrimp, onions, peppers and avocado.

Hand-stretched cheese is tucked into the Bochinche Arepa at BienMeSabe (left); Sweet Pepper’s Pumpkin Arepa is stuffed with chorizo, mozzarella and fresh produce (right).

The fresh vegetable garnishes at Sweet Pepper were of the highest quality, and shined in its Pumpkin Arepa, a seasonal limited-time offering featuring a grilled chorizo link topped with tomato sauce, melted mozzarella, smoked peppers, curly parsley and a fine julienne of scallion and fresh rainbow peppers.

Generous portioning is a hallmark of the Venezuelan arepa, and Rica Arepa more than satisfies the value equation with varieties such as the Tropical, bursting with spiced shredded chicken, lettuce, tomato and avocado, and the Rica Reina, a three-layer tower of shredded beef, avocado chicken salad and shredded Gouda.

The Venezuelan arepa appeals to the American diner’s love for all things handheld. Its rich corn masa base results in a craveable carrier that is also gluten-free, and the number of possible signature variations featuring authentic or mashed-up flavors is nearly endless.

Standout: Cheese Caps

Fans of the popular Asian bubble teas are now being drawn to a new and deliciously whimsical treatment known as the “cheese cap”—a glass of cold tea topped with a thick layer of foam made from cream cheese whipped with milk and a touch of salt.

Asian tea parlors such as Bingo Tea in Chicago and Mi Tea in New York offer cheese-capped versions of both black and green tea as well as fruit-flavored varieties.

While the ingredient combination might seem strange, the flavors of this refreshing drink marry perfectly, with a texture that is both light-bodied and indulgent, as the cheese foam and tea blends with each sip.

Cheese-capped teas offer sales-building potential throughout foodservice segments, from fast-casual dining to college and university menus. They are colorful and visually arresting when served in a glass or clear-plastic vessel, and as to-go versions are served with a “sippy lid,” the issue of using plastic straws is also eliminated.

Mi Tea in New York serves a variety of cheese-capped versions of fruit teas, as well as black and green teas.

Kushari: Pasta Meets Pulses

Kushari is a classic Egyptian street food that combines layers of pasta, lentils and chickpeas with a topping of tomato sauce and crisply fried onions. The dish is believed to have originated in the 1800s as a way for Egyptian households to transform leftover cooked grains and pasta into a hearty and satisfying meal.

While kushari is not well known here, fast-casual concept Kusharista in New York has brought the dish stateside, in both its classic form and in creative mash-ups, incorporating nontraditional but flavorful global ingredients. The menu at Kusharista allows for extensive customizability. Diners may choose from five signature kushari bowls, or create their own by choosing from the wide array of pastas, grains, sauces, dressings, proteins and garnishes on offer.

Kusharista’s Italian-style kushari bowl features meatballs and tomato sauce.

Kusharista’s “Original” version includes choices of white or brown rice and elbow macaroni or spaghetti, in addition to the lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce and onions. The ingredients provide a unique and compelling combination of textures, but are not particularly flavor-forward. All of the signature bowls, however, contain elements designed to satisfy consumer demand for bigger and bolder flavors

The Spicy Fiesta Kushari features grilled chicken breast topped with a spicy Mexican sauce flavored with fresh and dried chiles and lime juice. The Italian Kushari includes meatballs, an herbed basil tomato sauce, baby arugula and toasted almonds. And the Asian Fusion Kushari pairs teriyaki-glazed grilled shrimp with a coconut curry sauce. Kushari’s flavor-carrying potential is just one of many attributes making it a modern menu opportunity.

Menu Ready: Healthy and Affordable

Kushari’s positive attributes point to strong growth potential on mainstream menus.

  • It fits perfectly into today’s trend in bowl-based dishes.
  • The grain, pasta and lentil blend travels well, making it ideal for both takeout and delivery.
  • The textural contrasts are unique, and could be further enhanced by the inclusion of a whole grain such as farro, freekeh, quinoa or fonio (West African millet).
  • The bowls may include a meat or seafood protein, or just as easily remain meatless for vegetarian and vegan diners.
  • The base ingredients are economical, and assembly of the bowls is quick and easy.
  • The bowls also carry a strong perception of health, creating opportunities for menu innovation in both commercial and non-commercial operations.

Standout: Toothpick Meats

An item we sampled several times that screamed “Great new bar snack!” was Toothpick Lamb, a Chinese dish of thinly sliced lamb shoulder that is stir-fried with onion, garlic, toasted cumin seeds and sliced hot chiles, then skewered on toothpicks.

The spice and heat of the classic preparation grabbed our taste buds, but the format of bite-sized skewers of meat served in a shareable mound captured our imaginations.

As evidenced by the Skewered Beef variation at New York’s Hunan Slurp, lamb is not the only suitable meat. Likewise, there is no limit to the flavoring options. So, a barbecued pork version could be one logical mainstream move that would make an ideal midscale appetizer, casual sharing plate or bar snack.

A shareable Toothpick Beef from Hunan Slurp in New York entices diners with hot chiles and an easy format—plus the meat can be changed up.

Part Two of this research report will appear in the July/August 2019 issue of Flavor & The Menu.


From the Mar/Apr 2019 issue of Flavor & the Menu magazine. Read the full issue online or check if you qualify for a free print subscription.


About The Author


Gerry Ludwig is a nationally recognized food writer, speaker and trend tracker, and leads the Culinary R&D department at Gordon Food Service, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Using a proprietary street-level research method as his exclusive data source, Gerry and his team create trends-based menu solutions that are executed at the operator level by the company’s team of culinary specialists. Gerry is a contributing writer for Flavor & The Menu and conducts seminars and workshops at numerous industry events in both the United States and abroad, and oversees customer-facing restaurant research tours in major cities throughout the United States.