Asian cuisine evolution

Niche cuisines are driving chain menu development.
Photograph courtesy of Pei Wei

top 500

Of the three big global menu influences in America—Asian, Mexican and Italian—Asian concepts continue to evolve on Technomic’s Top 500 list. Chains offering Chinese cuisine, such as Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro (Nos. 21 and 52, respectively) have long occupied leading spots. But now Japanese, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese flavors and foods are infusing chain menus, and chefs are digging deeper, exploring Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian offerings.

And customers are receptive. According to Technomic’s Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, 36% of consumers like to try regional variations of global cuisines so they can discover new foods and flavors.

As a result, chains offering less-mainstream Asian cuisines are moving further up the Top 500 list. These include Sarku Japan (No. 140), WaBa Grill (No. 243), Gyu-Kaku (No. 256) and HuHot Mongolian Grill (No. 281), all of which boasted sales growth of 6% to 8% in 2018. Sarku’s menu focuses on sushi and teriyaki, while Gyu-Kaku specializes in Japanese barbecue. Both WaBa and HuHot are build-your-own concepts distinguished by signature Asian sauces.

Health as a differentiator

These limited-service chains also bring the healthy aspects of Asian cuisine to the forefront. They highlight lean proteins and preparations such as grilling, stir-frying and steaming. Panda Express, the largest Asian chain in America, is also going in a better-for-you direction. Its Wok Smart dishes, coming in at 300 calories or less with at least 8 grams of protein, now make up half the menu. This line includes the new Wok-Fired Shrimp, a Hunan-style mix of shrimp, sugar snap peas, red bell peppers and onions wok-tossed in a sauce flavored with Chiu Chow-style chiles. And last fall, Panda introduced a plant-based side called Super Greens. The steamed veggie dish includes broccoli, kale and cabbage—all categorized as superfoods—wok-tossed with garlic.

Pei Wei Asian Diner, a pan-Asian fast-casual chain and No. 128 on the Top 500, is going in a healthier direction, too. It recently added a lower-carb cauliflower rice as an alternative to white or brown rice for guests to choose as an add-on or the base for an entree.

In keeping with the low-carb trend, Pei Wei also debutedthe Cauliflower Power Bowl, composed ofcauliflower rice with steamed white meat chicken, carrots, red bell peppers, snap peas, onions, scallions and ginger. It’s topped with a tamarind and chile soy glaze—an example of digging a little deeper into unexplored Asian cuisines. Along with adobo and sambal, Technomic cites tamarind as one of those emerging Asian ingredients to watch. 

Flavor exploration

Asian chains are experimenting more often with these ingredients, especially after seeing the widespread acceptance of spicy condiments, such as Sriracha and gochujang. At Panda Express, chef Jimmy Wang, director of culinary innovation, cites the Chiu Chow-style chilis as one of his favorite ingredients, as well as Sichuan peppercorns, which are slated for an upcoming LTO. “We strive to bring our guests new and exciting flavors as often as we are able and stay on top of trends,” he says. “The brand’s Panda + Tea restaurants were created to serve as a living laboratory for exploring new menu items, allowing the innovation team to get guest feedback in real time.” Right now, Chinese street foods are a focus, and Wang is testing bing—thin, filled pancakes served from street carts in China.

Street food is also trending in full-service. P.F. Chang’s offers a Street Fare section on its menu, listing items such as Cauliflower Tempura with a spicy gochujang sauce and Dynamite Shrimp with Sriracha aioli.

Wang attributes the growth of Asian concepts to the fact that today’s guests are more adventurous and continuously looking to experience new, bold and exciting flavors. “Asian cuisine is so diverse and offers so many of these attributes,”  he says.

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report

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