The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: hot openings edition

With all the high-profile ribbon cuttings that were entered into the calendar, this was the perfect week to start a mail-order scissor business. Some of the biggest names in the business raised the napkin off new ventures, prompting us to produce this edition of the week’s head-spinning moments a day early, before necks were too sore to rotate.

Taco Bell’s kick in the peppers.  Breakfast aside, Taco Bell isn’t exactly living the mas life these days. Comps slid during the quarter leading into the launch of a waffle taco-based breakfast menu, which could prove a wobbly foundation for a concept turnaround. Just in case a Belgian-Mexican mash-up doesn’t prove a silver bullet, the Bell is experimenting with a start-up that leapfrogs over the rest of fast-casual, to what some observers say is the vanguard of that sector’s growth.

It’s called U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Tap Room, with the second half of that moniker being the real neon sign. There’s a mounting conviction in the business, fueled by concepts like HopDoddy, in essence a fast-casual brewpub chain, and Pizzeria Locale, the wine-heavy better-pizza entrant backed by Chipotle, that adult beverage service will be the next critical differentiator in fast-casual. One of U.S. Taco Co.’s signatures will be alcoholic milkshakes, which are getting traction among young adults who grew up on energy drinks. The beverages are served in novel glassware like Mason jars.

Craft beers and wines also are on the menu, as are upscale tacos and French fries, the Holy Grail that Taco Bell never quite figured out at its namesake brand.

The venture, slated to fire up its fryers and milkshake machines this summer, is one of the latest experiments to roll out of Yum! Brands’ concept labs. Earlier this year, the industry smacked its cheek in surprise when word leaked of a new Chick-fil-A-like test vehicle for KFC. The company said the concept, Super Chix Chicken & Fries, wasn’t intended to rival Chick-fil-A, but rather to serve as potential growth vehicle overseas. So of course they’re going to test it in Dallas rather than overseas.

An Asian sandwich concept is also rumored to be in the works.

The sly Fox’s next one. Phoenix was abuzz this week after local news reports previewed Sam Fox’s next restaurant concept, Flower Child. Consumers might have been intrigued by the possibility of a hot new dining choice, but local operators know that Fox, the brain behind Sauce, Zinburger, True Food Kitchen and high-volume upscale concepts, has an uncanny ability to read consumer preferences and deliver a moneymaker in response.

If his streak holds, Zoe’s, LYFE Kitchen, Veggie Grill, Pita Jungle and Wildflower Café could have a new competitor in Flower Child. The yet-to-open concept is described as a fast-casual riff on True Food Kitchen, the health-oriented concept that Fox developed and then sold to P.F. Chang’s. The sandwiches, salads and wraps promise the unbeatable whammy for some demographic groups of flavor, freshness and outstanding nutritional value. The 3,300-square-foot prototype doesn't open until April 29, but it’s already being described as something that can be readily expanded.

Signatures include grass-fed beef ($7 for a steak); build-your-own meals of grains and vegetables ($4 for two, $7 for two, $10 for three); sustainable salmon ($7); in a page right out of Chipotle’s book, organic tofu used in place of protein ($4); and a Thai buckwheat noodle salad ($7).

Pyle on. Stephan Pyles, the Dallas celebrity chef with a veritable AccuTrack radar system for anticipating upscale dining trends, lifted the drapes this week on his still-not-finished latest, San Salvaje. The godfather of high-art Southwestern cuisine has covered the price gamut with his restaurants, from Routh Street Café to Baby Routh and Star Canyon, a tacos-and-margaritas joint. This time around, he’s betting on Latino fare priced as high as $24 an item, for an escabeche of bass, potatoes cooked in duck fat, and chile aoli. But you can get a tamal (not a tamale, you rube) stuffed with lobster and hibiscus for $8.

There’s a definite bent toward authenticity; the whole menu is in Spanish, and features such South American exotica as tacu tacu, the Peruvian peasant food. 

Cameron Mitchell plates school memories. A poster child for restaurant entrepreneurship, the Columbus, Ohio, restaurateur has told the story of glancing around a dining room in near chaos while he was in a lowly service role and muttering to himself, “Oh, yeah. This is the business for me.” Nostalgia for the culinary climb that followed is evident in Mitchell’s latest would-be hit, which opened in his hometown of Upper Arlington, Ohio, this week: Hudson 29.

The highfalutin promise is what restaurant representatives describe as “a tale of two valleys.” The dishes were supposedly inspired by the time Mitchell spent in New York’s Hudson River valley while studying at the Culinary Institute of America, and the days he subsequently logged in Napa Valley, learning about wines and California produce. Given the public’s infatuation with well-known chefs and restaurateurs, Mitchell’s company is playing it smart.

Yet the menu reads like a higher-end riff on Cheesecake Factory’s bill of fare, with every food product known to foodie-mankind. You can get chicken lollipops with a sweet-chili dipping sauce, or a sushi roll called The Hudson, made with mango, shrimp, tuna, avocado, and the one thing you might actually source from the Hudson Valley, apple.

Entrees include St. Louis barbecue ribs, which hail from neither valley.

The lesson: having a story is less important than it being 100 percent accurate.

Fieri in the hole.  Considerable less tolerance has been allotted the new Las Vegas restaurant from Guy Fieri, the TV star-turned-critic-door-mat. After the merciless snout rapping his New York place was given, you’d think the familiar food-show celebrity would stick to media. Instead, he’s banking there is indeed no such thing as bad celebrity-dom, even if that means filling a 6,500-square-foot restaurant every night.

Culinary-school instructors could use the menu of Fieri’s Vegas Kitchen & Bar as a text for what not to do. Bloggers and citizen-reviewers have noted that the bill of fare contains no fewer than 21 exclamation points. Many have snickered over the listing of ingredients like “donkey sauce,” which is presumably neither made from donkeys, nor intended to be served over a donkey fillet. Less puzzling but slammed at least as much are cutesy descriptors such as “wow-sabi,” “Guy-talian” and “Chilli,” as in chillin’. 

All this at a time of increasing menu simplicity and transparency.

The opening prompted the popular website Jezebel to slap a new designation on Fieri: douchebro.


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