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Protein with a Passport

At Daphne’s California Greek, a traditional burger is given a Mediterranean treatment with signature pita bread, sauce and seasonings. Photo courtesy of daphne’s california greek. Mix and match multicultural flavors to create tasty and on-trend top sellers

By Karen Weisberg

It’s no secret that global inspirations are the spark behind some of the biggest menu hits of recent years — just witness the impact the Korean taco has had on even mainstream American menus. Chefs looking for flavor differentiation today dream of creating the equivalent of such an item — something so unique and flavorful that illustrious reviewers will marvel that no one ever envisioned the potential synergy before. Fusion, indeed, but with a modernized mindset that makes it not only approachable but craveable for American consumers.

For a behind-the-scenes look at some of today’s modern-fusion best sellers, we reached out to a handful of operators to follow the journey of their globally inspired menu innovations.

At Applebee’s Restaurants — the largest casual-dining chain in the world — Grilled Chicken Wonton Tacos are so successful that they’re a menu “must” in all U.S.-based venues. Jessica James, one of five executive chefs for the Kansas City, Mo.-based chain, is credited with creating this winner. The inspiration goes back about four years to the street food vendors of New York City.

“I was researching Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, among other items, and took an assortment from various stands back to our kitchen location downtown,” James recalls. Her sampling reflected the typical format of a six-inch baguette filled with mayonnaise, sriracha, pork paté, pickled carrots, pickled onion, etc. “The banh mi is a really unique and cool Asian sandwich concept, but I thought it was too high-end for our locations,” she says.

At the same time, James was working on a crispy beef taco concept and was aiming to create a thin shell. “I thought: ‘What if we took this really cool, on-trend Asian sandwich and put it in an approachable format that our Applebee’s consumer would be familiar with?’ So, we were frying taco shells and I grabbed some wonton skins, shaped a taco of each, then deep fried them.” Since James and her team were working with pulled pork at the time, she tossed some into a sweet-and-spicy Asian sauce, and made an Asian coleslaw of green cabbage, carrots, red onion and bell pepper. “We actually used our Oriental dressing that’s been part of our Oriental Chicken Salad for the past 20 years — so, again, a familiar flavor for our guests.”

The wonton tacos — garnished with cilantro and served four per plate — were originally launched in 2009 with both a pork and chicken version, but sales of the chicken version were much stronger, so that won out.

“It’s a fun, unique, on-trend sandwich made approachable for our guests by putting it into a taco shell — all of middle America is comfortable with tacos,” James adds. “We added the garnish of cilantro as an authentic element of the banh mi. It needed a pop of color, plus it ties it back closer to what the Vietnamese were doing on the streets of New York.”

Oceana’s Ben Pollinger brings the ever-popular General Tsao’s treatment to a lobster dish, adding sweet-and-sour sauce, cashews and scallions, then serving it over black sticky rice. Photo courtesy of oceana. DOGS UNLEASHED
He’s been called “tenacious” and “industrious” and that’s a good thing, because both traits have been called upon since Kevin Sousa opened Station Street Hot Dogs earlier this year in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The self-taught cook also owns the highly acclaimed Salt of the Earth restaurant (where he incorporates flavors and techniques into menu items inspired by his globe-trotting forays), as well as Union Pig & Chicken (where his true Southern barbecue expertise is put to good use).

Station Street was a hot dog shop in the 1960s, remodeled in the late ’90s, then sold to Sousa last year. Figuring that a hot dog, like a taco, is just a vessel but the meat must be great, he immediately sought out the very best all-beef hot dog he could find. His now come from Kent Quality Foods in Grand Rapids, Mich., to serve as the base for several “fusion” varieties of the classic dog.

Thinking along similar lines as James of Applebee’s, Sousa draws inspiration from the iconic Vietnamese sandwich for his Banh Mi Dog, currently the top seller. “Our version starts with the all-beef hot dog, plus pork liver paté, Vietnamese pickled vegetables, jalapeños and cilantro. It’s probably the boldest flavor we do.”

The Kimchee Dog is more Korean-inspired than not, but as Sousa admits, “it’s a hodge-podge of things” he thinks taste good together. Here, kimchee is a scratch-made combo of cabbage, carrots, scallions and a whole lot of crushed red chiles. The fermentation process takes close to 14 days to develop its distinctive flavor. “We chop it finely, then it goes onto the hot dog along with scratch-made miso mayonnaise, nori and very finely shaved bonito,” Sousa says. “The nuttiness from the seaweed and bonito, plus a lot of umami from the miso in the mayo creates a sensation similar to that of MSG, but without the MSG.”

Most of the hot dog toppings Sousa creates are actually flavor combos he craves as an adult; they’re his comfort food and generally recognized as “safe” by people who want to be adventurous but are still looking for the familiar. In fact, he finds that some customers come to Salt of the Earth having had a hot dog at Station Street on a previous occasion; as a result, diners — including Sousa’s mom — are a bit more adventurous. “At Salt of the Earth [with dishes around $20, versus a $7 commitment for a hot dog], we have a hanger steak cooked sous vide with a wild rice congee [rice porridge seasoned with miso and scallions plus beef stock]. We serve it with kimchee, then finish with bean sprouts, fresh cilantro plus a soy-molasses-butter sauce,” Sousa explains. “So now my mom — or whoever — knows from the hot dog what kimchee is, what nori is, what congee is. We pride ourselves on making those ingredients accessible and ‘safer’ for a lot of people.”

The 56-unit fast-casual concept known for the past two decades as Daphne’s Greek Café recently has been re-named and the menu revitalized. Daphne’s California Greek — based in Carlsbad, Calif. — now offers more healthful “California-fresh” inspired fare with evident Mediterranean undertones. Daphne’s has embraced the whole “global protein” mandate its consumers crave.

Taking a cue from street food, Daphne’s has introduced Street Pitas reminiscent of street tacos served in Mexico. “But they’re distinctly Mediterranean, with fresh-carved gyros, grilled chicken or falafel and tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese and our creamy Daphne’s sauce,” says Christy Geiling, the concept’s vice president of marketing and brand development.

Shrimp has also proven to be a hot item in recent months. “We introduced grilled shrimp — seasoned and grilled on a skewer — to complement our crispy shrimp,” she adds. The new item also stars in a mango shrimp salad, paired with a mango salsa made with smoky chipotle. “Our customers love our zesty marinade for the shrimp and the way the shrimp complements the mango for a sweet and savory taste in a satisfying salad,” says Geiling, noting that the salad with dressing has less than 400 calories.

At Daphne’s, making global flavors more approachable seems like second nature; in fact, they’ve coined the term “Daphnetizing” for the process. For example, a traditional burger is given a Mediterranean twist: Now it’s a Pita Burger with three choices of protein including grilled chicken, seasoned beef patty or a Gardenburger, plus a variety of toppings including guacamole (here it’s a mix of avocado, cucumbers, tomatoes and red onions), feta cheese, hummus or American cheese. “Instead of a traditional bun, we use our signature pita bread recipe which is sized just right for our burgers,” says Geiling. “Our guests enjoy how the Mediterranean flavors take this burger to new heights.”

Global-style dogs are hot at Kevin Sousa’s Station Street Hot Dogs in Pittsburgh, featuring diverse flavor influences that range from Southern to Korean. Photo courtesy of station street hot dogs. FROM THE GLOBAL SEA
You could say Ben Pollinger, executive chef at Michelin star-rated Oceana in New York, is well seasoned. He’s a chef whose credentials range from studying at the Culinary Institute of America to working with some of the finest chefs in the country, to cooking throughout France, Italy and Spain. Ingredients drawn from a global pantry are carefully chosen to enhance the finest seafood he prepares on a daily basis.

For the past six years at Oceana (the crown jewel of the Livanos Restaurant Group), Pollinger has seen trends come and go. Right now, lobster is the craze, so he’s created his own riff on a Chinese standard. “Everyone wants lobster — it tastes good and people are willing to spend a bit more for it,” Pollinger says. “I’m doing General Tsao’s Lobster. I prepare it exactly the same way as the chicken version; we par cook the lobster [for easier shell removal], then cut it into one-inch pieces. After it’s battered and fried, we toss it with sweet-sour and spicy sauce, then serve it with cashews and scallions over black forbidden rice — a glutinous, sticky rice with a nutty, sweet, earthy flavor.”

Another global-yet-approachable Asian-influenced dish is the taro-wrapped dorade with baby bok choy, long beans, peanuts and coconut-cilantro curry. Dorade is farm-raised in Greece and comes to Oceana fresh and whole. “It’s very moist and full-flavored so it stands up to the sauce. Since it’s farm-raised, it’s a consistent size and available year round.” As the only entrée that’s remained on the menu for six years, it has become Pollinger’s signature dish.

The urban country chic of Moderne Barn is the setting for a casual-yet-sophisticated American menu with global influences. In Armonk, N.Y., a Manhattan suburb, the two-year-old restaurant (and sister of Oceana) does the Livanos group proud. Executive Chef Ethan Kostbar recognizes global flavors as old friends; he grew up in Israel and traveled extensively through the Middle East and Europe.

“We aim to accommodate everyone, especially with proteins that are identifiable and fun to share,” Kostbar says. He admits it can be a challenge to entice the less adventuresome guest to try a flavor or concept that’s seemingly out of their comfort zone. While he sings praises of his Braised Chicken Tinga Pizza, he’s frustrated that “tinga” isn’t yet included in the mainstream lexicon.

“Tinga is almost a national dish south of the border,” he says. In Mexico, cooks braise chicken in a chipotle salsa roja and serve it on a fried corn tortilla with shredded lettuce and cilantro. At Moderne Barn, Kostbar braises chicken in chipotle tomato sauce, then shreds it atop pizza, along with roasted poblanos, queso fresco and tomatillo-avocado salsa verde. It’s topped with sliced radishes and epazote, a wild herb used in traditional Mexican cuisine. “I took this hot, crispy warm tinga salad concept and converted it to a pizza — but no one recognizes the word ‘tinga.’ The servers talk it up, but it’s difficult because customers want what they know,” he says. “I’ll give it another month on the menu.” Perhaps tinga pizza will prove to be the next best-selling fusion concept — given time.


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