Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Katie Ayoub
June 12, 2019

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Tacos are a winning format—that’s a given. Today, anything goes, from regional Mexican to eclectic American and everything in between. As always, the key is flavor. Brand relevance is also important, of course. We’ve pinpointed three restaurant concepts that nail the taco format while making it intrinsically their own. The first makes the most of seasonality, highlighting produce in a way that totally works in a taco. The second celebrates regionality while modernizing the flavor combinations. And the third? Well, shock value helps this one stand out, but the pay-off still delivers on the promise of a well-executed taco.

Taco of the Season

Tacos 4 Life’s Fried Green Tomato Taco is loaded with bacon, Cajun ranch, lettuce, pico de gallo and roasted corn.

Fried green tomatoes are a summertime joy, making them a perfect star for a seasonal special. At Tacos 4 Life, a Mexican fast casual, the Fried Green Tomato Taco capitalizes on their fleeting perfection and tucks them into a creative taco build.

Executive Chef Cynthia Malik starts by hand-breading the tomatoes, frying them and topping with bacon, Cajun ranch, lettuce, pico de gallo and roasted corn, all housed in a soft flour tortilla. “Getting the tomatoes just right for this taco was a process,” she says. “When building a taco recipe, we often find that flavors and textures get lost or change dramatically when we put them on a tortilla. In this case, our biggest challenge was finding the right breading, which ended up being a flour and spice blend rather than a more traditional cornmeal blend.”

The taco has become one of the most requested seasonal items. “Every bite is packed full of tart and salty, creamy and smoky, hot and cold, juicy and fatty, for an experience that leaves you wanting more,” says Malik.

Menu success brings rich reward—for every taco, quesadilla, rice bowl, salad or nachos purchased, Tacos 4 Life provides funds to feed a hungry child through a partnership with Feed My Starving Children.

The Three Sisters

Dos Coyotes Border Cafe’s Tewa Tacos feature butternut squash, black-bean/corn salsa, blue-corn tortillas, red chile sauce, pomegranate-kale slaw, maple cream, pumpkin seeds and Cotija.

Veg-forward dishes find a natural home in tacos. The challenge, as with everything, is making the flavors craveable. Mark Casale, Executive Chef of Dos Coyotes Border Cafe, succeeds with his Tewa Tacos. They combine a Southwest sensibility with a modern feel—adobo-roasted butternut squash and a black-bean/corn salsa are inside crisp, blue-corn tortillas, served on red chile sauce with pomegranate-kale slaw, maple cream, pumpkin seeds and Cotija.

“The Tewa Tacos see layers of complex flavors and ingredients that are all at once refreshing, vibrant, deep and comforting,” says Casale. “The ingredients are based on the three sisters—beans, corn and squash. The palate is touched by salt (Cotija), bitter (kale), sweet (maple), and sour (lime). This is simply to prepare you for the depth and complexity that comes next.” The red chile sauce is made in traditional New Mexican fashion from Hatch chiles that are simmered slowly. An adobo paste, with notes of cinnamon and clove, add depth to the sauce.

“As you enjoy bite after bite, you’re reminded of the comforts of the autumn table—clove, cinnamon, roasted squash, pumpkin seeds, pomegranate and maple,” he says. “The bright slaw is an exquisite contrast to the rich flavors that lie beneath. These vegetarian tacos now have a true following and are enjoyed over and over again by omnivores and vegetarians alike.”

WTF Taco

Velvet Taco’s Szechuan Dan Dan Taco surprises with ground beef, Sichuan pepper aïoli, bok choy salad, crispy wonton strips and Sriracha crickets.

Velvet Taco’s Szechuan Dan Dan Taco is a perfect expression of the modern taco trend. It takes components traditionally found in a dan dan noodle dish, and reimagines them in a taco format. It combines ground beef cooked with sambal and sesame oil, aïoli spiked with Sichuan pepper, and a bok choy salad dressed in a housemade sesame-soy vinaigrette. The garnish? Crispy wonton strips and Sriracha crickets, of course.

“I’ve been playing around with different ideas for incorporating bugs onto our menu, but up until now hadn’t found the best vessel for it,” says Corporate Chef Grant Morgan. “The Sriracha crickets perfectly complement the Szechuan Dan Dan Taco and are fun and quirky—exactly what Velvet Taco is all about.”

The taco build was a product of Tacopalooza, Velvet Taco’s culinary event where it partners with chefs from around the world to invent new and unique tacos for the brand’s Weekly Taco Feature (WTF) menu. “This particular taco was made in conjunction with Chef Adam Moore, on behalf of True Aussie Beef & Lamb, and it uses grass-fed Australian beef,” says Morgan. Thanks to the shock value of the crickets, it lined up perfectly as the WTF for the week of April Fool’s Day.

About The Author

Katie Ayoub

Katie Ayoub serves as managing editor of Flavor & The Menu and content strategist for the Flavor Experience, an annual conference geared toward chain operators. She is president of Katie Ayoub & Associates, serving up menu trends expertise, content creation and food & beverage consultancy. Based in Chicago, Katie has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 20 years and part of the Flavor team since 2006. [email protected]