After a slow burn, churros become a hot restaurant menu item

State of the Plate: Nancy Kruse dishes on the centuries-old item now being used in a variety of items, from hot dogs to beverages.
churros menu
The Churroulette dessert from Tabu' Chicago is one of my original takes on the classic treat./Photo courtesy of Tabu' Chicago.

State of the Plate

Some food and beverage trends hit the menu like a bolt out of the blue. A good example of the phenomenon is the meteoric rise of White Claw that reached dizzying sales heights virtually overnight in 2018, created the hard-seltzer category and opened the flood gates to competitors too numerous to mention.

Other trends, however, are more of the slow-burn variety. An excellent example is the churro. Hardly an overnight success, the item traces its origins at least as far back as the Middle Ages, where it was found in Arabic cookbooks and adopted throughout the Iberian Peninsula. The New York Times reports that its name is of more recent vintage, likely tracing its roots to late nineteenth-century Spain and onomatopoetically representing the sound that the flour-water-salt batter makes when it hits the hot oil.

And therein lies the basis of its surging popularity on menus: It’s deep fried, topped with cinnamon and sugar and often served with an extra side of sweetness.

Star attractions. Churros, along with hot chocolate, remain a breakfast staple in Spain, and they’ve been getting a lot of play early in the day here, too, typically in gussied-up presentations.  

It is a brunchtime fixture at Chicago’s Azul Mariscos, where the Churro French Toast is topped with cinnamon-toast crumble and cinnamon ice cream while at The Churro Waffle nearby, the eponymous specialty is served with sea-salt caramel ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce.

Taking a different morning menu tack, La Churreria in New York City invites patrons to “Get Churroed” with the Churro Egg Sandwich made with scrambled eggs, serrano ham, Manchego cheese and a side of homemade potato chips.  

Churros also turn up in savory applications later in the day. They’re on the lunch menu at Xoco in Chicago, the casual sibling to chef Rick Bayless’s vaunted Frontera Grill, where the trendy Spicy Churro Chicken Sandwich puts arbol hot sauce and chipotle mayo atop a crispy-crunchy chicken breast on a crunchy churro bun. La Churreria has won rave reviews with its promotional Churro Dog, in which Basque-style Chistorra sausage and caramelized onions are encased in freshly fried churros.

CEC Unicorn Churros

Chuck E. Cheese helped National Unicorn Day become a thing in 2019 with its Unicorn Churros./Photo courtesy of Chuck E. Cheese.

Unexpected applications. Their versatility and promotability can make churros a chain-menu homerun. Chuck E. Cheese proved the point and helped make National Unicorn Day a thing on April 9, 2019, with its introduction of Unicorn Churros. Baked, not fried, they are available in three Day-Glo colors, pink, green and blue, and in three out-of-this-world flavors, cotton candy, sour green apple and blue raspberry. Served in a cute unicorn cup, they are kid magnets and social media bait in equal measure

If churros and Chuck E. Cheese make for unexpected menu mates, there’s a whole fryer full of other multinational mash-ups. Beard Papa’s, the Japanese chain gaining traction in the US with its creative cream puffs, created a springtime special Churro Puff with horchata filling.

Pan-Asian specialties at Chicago’s 2d Restaurant include Chocolate Churro Pon de Ring, mochi doughnuts made with French chocolate and a proprietary five-spice blend that sell out quickly every morning. Close by, Xurro Churro Factory has drawn a following with Churro S’mores, a mini version of which was a big hit at last year’s Lollapalooza music festival.

The special churro dessert menu at Toca Madera locations in Scottsdale and West Hollywood presents the item in innovative guises like Churro Ice Cream Sandwiches finished with homemade cajeta and Churro Pops with cinnamon-buttercream churro crumble. The Cinnamon Chipotle Churro Doughnuts mix things up a bit, as the sweet heat of chipotle dulce de leche is balanced by cooling horchata ice cream.

The simple cinnamon-sugar combination easily lends itself to beverage adaptation, as well. Peet’s Coffee toasted the arrival of 2022 in January with a line of churro-inspired quaffs including Churro Latte and Churro Caramel Macchiato. And Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom hosted a Cinco de Mayo mini tour of beverages, among which was a Chocolate Churro Shot.

Sonic churro shake

Sonic's Churro Shake will be available through Sept. 25./Photo courtesy of Sonic Drive-Ins.

Summertime sweeteners. Last summer, Carvel Ice Cream went all out with churro-flavored ice cream, soft serve and shakes launched just in time for National Ice Cream Day on July 18. What’s more, Churro Crunchies,crispy vanilla pieces in a vanilla shell with cinnamon and sugar, marked the first-ever permanent new Crunchie flavor in the brand’s long history. Sort of sprinkles on steroids, the popular topping is available both in store and also to-go, which facilitates unimpeded crunching at home.

In June 2021, pop star and Tik Tok heavyweight Jason Derulo collaborated with Jack in the Box on a virtual menu of Milli Meals to celebrate his millionth follower on the site. The promo included Bacon Churro Milli Shake with maple syrup and bacon pieces blended with cinnamon sugar and topped with bacon and mini churros borrowed from the chain’s permanent menu.

Churro-mania has roared right into this summer season, as Shake Shack welcomed its arrival on May 11 with the limited-time Chocolate Churro Shake made with hand-spun cinnamon churro frozen custard dressed with spiced dark chocolate sauce and additional toppings of cinnamon waffle cone crumbles and whipped cream. Sonic Drive-Ins will see summer out from August 1 to September 25 with a promotional doubleheader featuring a Churro Shake that blends ice cream with gooey caramel and sweet cinnamon sugar, all topped with an actual cinnamon sugar Churro, whipped topping and a cherry. There are also dippable churros as part of the brand’s Summer Snacking Menu.

Sizzle vs. Fizzle. Late last year, Business Insider reported that sales of hard seltzer had gone flat for most players in the overcrowded category. Volumes reached a high-water mark in 2020, thanks to a Covid-driven bounce in consumption of alcohol at home. However, the category appears to have jumped the shark by summer of 2021, when sales for many competitors fizzled, and they were forced to dump millions of cases of product. The Atlantic opined that the real reason for sinking sales is that many consumers find the flavors “mostly disgusting.”

No such fate awaits the churro. Its current sizzling popularity will slow, but not dissipate entirely as chefs continue to leverage its basic, deep-fried appeal with inventive, witty treatments like the one at Tabu’ in Chicago. The dessert menu warns diners to choose wisely from the Churroulette wheel, which comprises five sweet options and one that’s laced with fiery habañero, a fun gamble in which there are no real losers.

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