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    Latin American Cuisine Finds a Home in Fast Casual

  • The wide range of cuisines coming out of Latin America is making a big impression on U.S. restaurants and consumers.

    Pincho Factory
    Miami-based Pincho Factory infuses its menu with flavors found across Latin America; the Fritanga Burger features fried white cheese, cabbage slaw, and crema.

    When diners consider Latin American cuisine, they frequently equate it with Mexican food. The region’s cooking, however, includes so much more.

    Certainly, there is kinship among some ingredients and fare across this region, which includes nations and territories in the Americas where the native language is not only Spanish, but also French and Portuguese. But there are key distinctions. Chilies are used throughout Latin America, for instance, but the flavor and heat of a habanero from Mexico differs from that of the popular aji amarillo in Peru. Empanadas are made with corn in Venezuela and Colombia but with flour in Argentina and Chile.

    “You see a lot of similarities across Latin America, but each country, each area, has its own traditional food,” says Valeria Molinelli, senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Providence, Rhode Island. “And people are very loyal to that.”

    The differences occur with other important ingredients, such as plantains. In Central America and northern South America, a green, starchy plantain is a staple, while sweet plantains are chosen farther south.

    Latin American dishes and ingredients “are popping into more menus” in the U.S., Molinelli says, noting that quinoa’s acceptance led to more interest for Peruvian cuisine. But she adds that it’s a very slow process, due partly to the prevalence of Mexican cuisine—similar to what some Asian cuisines faced in the wake of Chinese food’s popularity.

    Still, just as some Asian dishes, including Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen, have broken into America’s mainstream culinary consciousness, Latin American food is on the cusp of doing the same, says Rene Prats, a South Florida-–based restaurant consultant.

    “It’s wide open,” he says. “Chipotle taught America to eat rice and beans, and that leads to Cuban food. You have arepas from Venezuela that are gluten-free and can be stuffed with anything. And you can do so much with tostones (twice-fried green plantains).”

    Some Latin American cuisine is unfamiliar to many people in the U.S., Prats says. As a result, operators seeking to serve this food might want to refer to their style as Latin, just as some Asian and Mediterranean restaurants have done with those monikers.

    For a number of operators, a specific country’s cuisine is not as important as a general taste profile, says Elizabeth Lindemer, corporate executive chef for Fuchs North America, a manufacturer of seasonings. “Sometimes they are not asking for a Dominican Republic or Puerto Rican flavor, but a Caribbean island type of seasoning or sauce,” she says.

    Still, some styles, like Cuban, are known well enough to carry a national name, Prats says. “People are not afraid of Cuban sandwiches, but the biggest factor is rice and beans, which is a staple of Cuban food,” he says, noting that those ingredients fit in with the popularity of bowls.

    He consulted with the owners of Miami’s classic Sergio’s Family Restaurants to help create Sergio’s Cuban, a fast-casual restaurant and coffee bar that builds bowls, platters, and sandwiches to feature along with Cuban coffees and pastries.

    In recent years, chefs have gravitated to Peruvian cuisine, and it’s for more than quinoa. The cooking style, including its various spices and sauces, ranked 11th in the National Restaurant Association’s annual “What’s Hot” trend projection for 2018.

    “Peruvian cuisine has seen a huge uptick,” Fuchs’ Lindemer says. “It’s the result of a huge melting pot of influences—indigenous, European, Asian, and African.”

    The dish from Peru that has caught on most in the U.S. is pollo a la brasa, a rotisserie chicken cooked over fiery charcoal and marinated for hours with spices such as cumin and black pepper. It’s the key menu item at Chicago’s Chopo Chicken.

    “We marinate ours for 20 hours, and we use aji amarillo as one of our main ingredients,” says co-owner Pablo Basurto. It is served with yuca, a popular Latin tuber.

    Close behind in popularity are Peruvian favorites Aji de Gallina (a creamy chicken sauce served with rice or quinoa) and ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in lime juice and served with sweet potatoes, canchita, and Peru’s giant corn. Sides include yuca fries and fried plantains.

    Basurto says Peruvian cuisine has become popular because it’s flavorful and “is close enough to Mexican that people can relate to it.”

    Distinctly Latin American empanadas are showing up at a growing number of restaurants, although it’s been the key item at Tampa, Florida–based Mr. Empanada since the business began more than three decades ago.

    “Every Latin American country has its own version, no exceptions, from Venezuela to Argentina,” says company chief executive Audrey Perez. “It used to be that people were very possessive of their own flavors, but we don’t get that as much anymore.”

    Mr. Empanada’s version of the crescent-shaped filled pastries is Cuban and fried. The empanadas are created in a commissary and sent to its 10 Tampa Bay–area units and to foodservice suppliers.

    Unlike the traditional, inexpensive street food, which has a large amount of dough with a spoon of filling, these empanadas are completely filled with high-quality ingredients, such as lean ground beef, real crabmeat, and house-made sausage, and cost a bit more. There are also two fruit-filled empanadas: apple and guava cream cheese.

    Like empanadas, arepas—flat, round, doughy cakes made for centuries with corn, water, and salt in what is now Colombia and Venezuela—conventionally contain a small amount of meat or other fillings. In the U.S., however, restaurants stuff their arepas to capacity.

    Arepa TX in Dallas uses non-dairy Venezuelan-style arepas, and offers traditional fillings like carne mechada, which has slow-cooked shredded beef and cheese, and pabellon with shredded beef, black beans, white cheese, and plantains. But most of the menu goes far beyond that particular region, and arepas are pressed on a panini grill.

    “We are definitely more like a fusion restaurant,” says Susana Arce, co-owner of the fast-casual restaurant. “We think of it as Latin with a Texas twist.”

    The most popular menu item is the smoked brisket and chimichurri arepa, which combines Texas barbecued brisket, fried plantains, avocados, and chimichurri sauce that has roots in Argentina and Uruguay. “It takes the best of many cultures and mixes it up,” Arce says. Sides include fried yuca and plantain chips, and frozen custard paletas for dessert.

    Tostones play an expanded role at Miami-based Pincho Factory. In addition to being a side, they serve as the bun for a burger and chicken sandwich on the menu, similar to a style of steak sandwich in parts of Latin America, including the jibarito in Puerto Rico.

    Still, it’s the pinchos, the Latin American equivalent of kebabs, that make up a large portion of the menu at the 10-unit enterprise. The chicken, steak, or shrimp pinchos are featured in wraps, bowls, and salads, and with a variety of styles.

    “We try to celebrate Latin American street food as much as we can,” says cofounder Nedal Ahmad. That includes chimichurri and cilantro sauces, black beans, and pico de gallo among the ingredients. The steak used is vacio, a cut popular in Argentina.

    Pincho Factory also has a fritanga burger and chicken sandwich, referring to the Nicaraguan quick-service-style restaurant that serves items like grilled meat, cabbage slaw, queso frito, and crema, all of which are part of these two menu items. “It’s one of the many cultures in our neighborhoods we can include in our menu,” Ahmad adds.

    Other Latin countries’ cuisines have played a role in various other operations, from Pollo Campero, the Guatemalan company that has dozens of locations across the U.S., to the Brazilian-influenced dishes at Montana-based Five on Black.

    Even with all these varied Latin American styles of cooking, Mexican remains far and away the most popular and continues to grow. Still, a number of restaurant operators are choosing to focus on specific regions of Mexico for their cuisine. Chronic Tacos employs recipes for its tacos, burritos, bowls, and tortas from a third-generation American family whose roots are in a city in the state of Zacatecas.

    “It is still California-inspired, but what separates us is our carnitas, al pastor, and the chorizo for breakfast,” says Dave Mohammed, vice president of marketing for the Aliso Viejo, California–based chain that has 50 units in 10 states.

    All the meats are marinated at least 24 hours, and the sauces, including those made with fire-roasted tomatillos, are made daily in the stores, as are the pico de gallo and guacamole. The beans are slow-cooked and made traditionally.

    “Everything we do comes back to our recipes,” Mohammed says. “It really gives us that bold flavor that our guests really notice.”