Continue to Site

    3 Surprising Ways to Explore Latin-American Cuisine

  • From Argentina to Mexico to each of the 50 United States, Latin-American flavors are king.

    Thinkstock / Rimma_Bondarenko
    Elotes—3-inch-long chunks of corn on the cob that have been grilled and then coated with both traditional and nontraditional flavors.

    If you’re an American of a certain age, you can’t help but marvel at the changes that have shaped our society in the past half-century. For instance, the Pew Research Center pointed out last year that since 1960, the nation’s Latino population has increased from 6.3 million to 56.5 million and now represents roughly 18 percent of the total U.S. population. The figure was 6.5 percent in 1980.

    If that sounds like a dramatic surge to you, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Pew projects that the nation’s Latino population will reach approximately 107 million by 2065.

    So what is a quick-serve or fast-casual operator to do to better serve consumers of Latino origin, or those who simply enjoy the signature tastes and ingredients central to Latino cuisine? As I considered this question, a few things surprised me. Each surprise suggested several avenues for exploration.

    Healthy as homemade

    While Latino consumers are acutely aware of the connection between diet and health outcomes, they define healthy cuisine in a distinctly different way. To many, health is a function of being made from scratch; it’s less about calorie counts than about how the food is prepared.

    Fortunately, there are many places on the menuboard where chains can add a touch of freshness to satisfy Latin American and non-Latino guests’ preferences. For instance, making or even just serving guacamole in a molcajete—essentially a stone mortar and pestle, though plastic is now also commonly used—is one way to telegraph handcrafted freshness. And while I eschew the notion that plate garnishes are the solution to every challenge, you can also finish just about any dish with a shower of fresh herbs, pico de gallo, or sliced chile peppers, all of which can convey the essence of a freshly prepared meal.

    High-end hybrids

    Mexican food and fine dining haven’t always been natural bedfellows. But more and more chefs are staking a claim to a high-end blend of Latin-American flavors and traditional, north-of-the-border preparations. It’s a somewhat surprising development that works beautifully both in theory and in practice.

    What we today call California cuisine—with its emphasis on fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients and simple preparations—is now often fused with Mexican traditions to create a kind of haute Mexican cuisine.

    Not surprisingly, Los Angeles, with its 5 million Hispanic residents, is leading the charge here. Chef Wes Avila’s Guerrilla Tacos food truck features roasted sweet potato tacos with almond chile, scallions, and feta cheese, as well as a black truffle quesadilla tricked out with fried egg, Oaxacan cheese, aged cheddar, and chives. Carlos Salgado’s Taco Maria in Costa Mesa uses non-GMO heirloom corn varieties for his tortillas; his aguachile comprises Hokkaido scallops, cucumber, citrus, serrano pepper, and various herbs, and his signature jardineros are highlighted by shiitake mushroom chorizo, potato, and queso fundido.

    Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a two-star Michelin restaurant called Californios takes the high-end approach to another level altogether, with dishes such as a fall pumpkin empanada boasting a jicama tortilla, pumpkin mousse, pepitas, and trout roe.

    Fast-food and fast-casual outlets can take cues from these trends with simpler, less pricey, and less resource-intensive flourishes ranging from condiments (think mole ketchup or an achiote aioli) to guacamole prepared with the consistency of a mousse rather than a thick spread, to sauces that combine French creams and Mexican queso.

    New flavor frontiers

    Central and South American cuisines incorporate a dizzying variety of novel and delicious ingredients, and all it takes is a careful focus on a few ingredients or dishes to devise interesting menu items that stand apart.

    I think about the potential for elotes—3-inch-long chunks of corn on the cob that have been grilled and then coated with both traditional and nontraditional flavors, like lime and chile, Tabasco and parmesan, salt-vinegar pepperoncini, or sriracha-lime mayo. The yuca is also ripe for discovery; this alternative tuber can stand in for potatoes in tots, fries, or fresh chips. The citrus marinade known as leche de tigre could be used to season proteins or to create unusual sauces for vegetable dishes. And then there are signature sweet ingredients such as guava or salted caramel that can add a touch of distinction to the menu.

    As you look for new, compelling ways to entice the growing Latin American and curious millennial populations to your doors, it makes sense to look beyond the basic taco or burrito and consider how the core flavors that define Mexican, Central American, or South American cuisines can be deployed effectively in day-to-day applications.

    I’d love to hear what you’re doing to incorporate Latin-American flavors. Drop me a line at [email protected] and let me know what you’ve come up with.