The best things we ate at this year's National Restaurant Show

The annual exhibition of all things foodservice is traditionally a great place to find the latest in menu trends and this one did not disappoint. Here’s what Restaurant Business editors liked the most.
Bitchin sauces
The Bitchin' Sauces were the official winner, chosen by three different editors. | Photo by Pat Cobe.

The annual National Restaurant Show is a great place to see the latest in restaurant equipment and restaurant technology, gaze at robots, ogle knives and flatware and learn from the brightest experts in the business.

But let’s face it, the best part of the whole thing is stuffing our faces.

Restaurants are food destinations, after all, and the show let’s us know about some of the most innovative menu items and ingredients. And so, in the spirit of journalism, the Restaurant Business editors fanned out over the four-day event to get a sense of what’s out there.

Here is what we all liked the most.

Senior Menu Editor Pat Cobe

Crispy Karagge Chicken Bites. Given the choice, I’d rather have real fried chicken over most plant-based versions, but I never would have guessed  this Korean-inspired dish prepared by Chef Jason Hernandez was not the real thing. He was working with mixologist Tony Pereyra at the Libbey booth, creating food and drink pairings that showed off the plates, bowls and glassware. Hernandez’s dish combined fried Hungry Planet chicken bites, a product with a short ingredient list, with watermelon “KFC” sauce heated up with gochujang. The sauced chicken was served on top of mango basmati rice with a garnish of pickled mango. The flavor profile was sweet, hot and savory, and paired perfectly with an alcohol-free watermelon-green apple drink created by Pereyra. The two said that they try to balance health and indulgence in the pairings they create.

Tost Original Non-Alcoholic Sparkling Beverage. As part of the FABI awards judging, I had sampled Tost sparkling rosé, a fizzy beverage that closely resembles rosé wine but contains no alcohol. But I had never tried the original flavor, a blend of white tea, white cranberry and ginger. Both are viable alternatives to regular wine and would pair well with seafood, chicken and lighter fare. But the original Tost is drier, crisper and really refreshing. You can get pretty thirsty tromping up and down the aisles of exhibits at the Show in search of stories, and I came across the Tost booth at just the right moment to wake up my taste buds.

Bitchin’ Sauces. A multitude of sauces were being poured and drizzled at exhibitors’ booths, but the assortment of Bitchin’ Sauces caught my attention as they were displayed in the natural and organic section of the Show floor.

The sauces are almond-based, so they’re totally vegan and dairy-free but exceptionally creamy. They come in a wide range of flavors, including curry, cilantro chili, caramelized onion and even salted caramel, but my favorite was one the newest sauces: Dill Pickle. It would really rock tuna salad.

Executive Editor Lisa Jennings

Finger Lime Caviar. Mad Honey had frozen tubs of finger lime “caviar” from Australia, which are the juicy pearls (vesticles) found inside the fruit that can be used as flavor pops on anything from ceviche dishes to guacamole. The pearls pop in the mouth like tiny boba. They are harvested and quick frozen in food-safe containers, and are either a lovely seaglass green or a rosy pink.These should be everywhere. I’m picturing a tequila shot with a bump of finger lime caviar to follow. The line starts behind me.

Vegan Charcuterie. In the ever-expanding world of meat analogs, Prime Roots now makes it possible to lay out a fully vegan charcuterie board, with salami that looks sort of like the real thing. Sadly, it does not taste at all like the real thing. A better option among their offerings, though is a line of plant-based paté, which were quite good. Grab a baguette and your favorite vegan butter and enjoy the fact that only some mushroom roots died to give you a true paté experience.

Burgers with the ‘shrooms blended in. Can’t give up red meat? How about going halfway? 50/Cut had a ground beef product that was half ground-up mushrooms, giving folks an opportunity to cut back on their red meat without losing the flavor. The cooked burgers didn’t really taste at all of mushrooms, so fungi haters would be totally fooled. In fact, mushroom lovers might be disappointed. I almost wish they would go 75% mushroom and 25% meat.

Toast made from avocados. Don’t just put avocados on the toast. Now there’s avocados in the toast. The Avocado Bread Company had all manner of loaves made with avocado mixed in the dough, along with other spices that call to mind guacamole. The bread was moist and made a terrific grilled cheese.

Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze

Birria grilled cheese from J.T.M. Food Group. Unlike the above two editors I’m going to give you just one. Birria is all the rage these days, but adding it to grilled cheese was amazing. The birria stood out well on its own, but it worked out nicely in sandwich form and the dipping sauce was excellent.

OK, so here are some honorable mentions: Oatly’s soft serve ice cream (I regret not getting it a second time), the Peanut Butter Fudge mousse from Mae Fine Foods and whoever made that killer Tiramisu in the Lakeside pavilion that I grabbed while rushing to a meeting.

Birria grilled cheese

Birria and grilled cheese: A match made in food heaven. | Photo by Jonathan Maze.

Senior Technology Editor Joe Guszkowski

Bagel with avocado and Boursin Cheese. I stopped by the Avocados from Mexico booth Sunday and got roped into watching a chef demo, more or less against my will, because there was one open seat at the bar. However, I’m glad I did, because I got to eat this bagel with avocado and boursin cheese spread topped with lox and pickled onions prepared by chef Pati Jinich. I learned that avocado goes with pretty much everything, including cheese and fish. Jinich also whipped up a guac made with honey and another with Clamato.

Avocado spread

This was worth a stop by the Avocados from Mexico booth. | Photo by Joe Guszkowski

Managing Editor Heather Lalley

Tart lemon-yuzu slush from Pecan Deluxe Candy Co. Most of the time, I would choose a savory dish over a sweet one. But it was, indeed, a sweet treat that won me over at the Show this year. Over in Lakeside, Pecan Deluxe Candy Co. offered up a delightful range of textures and flavors in one tiny cup: Tart lemon-yuzu slush with creamy vanilla soft serve atop fruit-flavored popping boba. Visitors to the booth could then choose from an array of crunchy candy toppings, from spicy chile-lime sprinkle (my favorite) to popping passionfruit crystals to crispy ginger cookie bark. The dish covered all the bases. It was interactive, novel, visually appealing and so delicious I went back two days in a row. 

A close second, though, goes to my perennial favorite: The gooey, comforting, perfectly crisp-yet pillowy soft grilled cheese (in the tiny little paper bag) from Tillamook. I make sure to grab at least one every year. 

Editor Reyna Estrada

Wisconsin cheese. As a vegetarian and lover of plant-based foods, I found myself taste testing mostly plant-based fare at the Restaurant Show this year. That said, I did eat nearly every piece of cheese at the Wisconsin Cheese booth, which was definitely a highlight of my time at the show this year. My personal favorite was the parmesan.

Jenny’s Tofu. They had an array of tofu on offer this year, but two of my favorites were Grandma Yang’s spicy stir fry tofu salad and the siracha peanuts tofu salad. Tofu can be a difficult product to get right, but both of these offerings were full of flavor and texture that you normally don’t get out of a tofu dish.

Senior Editor Benita Gingerella

Iced Pistachio Latte. Over at the Folgers Coffee booth, baristas were serving a variety of flavored iced lattes. I feel like many flavored coffee drinks can fall into the trap of being overly sweet. The pistachio latte served at the booth had enough pistachio flavor but did not leave me feeling like a just downed a sugar packet.  It was a refreshing pick-me-up as I ran about the show.

Cheeseburger Ravioli. I didn’t think I would enjoy the cheeseburger ravioli at the Rana Meal Solutions booth as much as I did. The ravioli was fried to perfection, and I loved that it was served in a paper cone, so it was easy to eat while walking the show floor.

DIY Guacamole Bar. The Avocados from Mexico booth had a guacamole bar where attendees could create their own customized guac creations. You could either completely customizer your own, or you could select from a handful of pre-customized options like a hot honey guac which included white onion, cotija cheese, a variety of hot peppers and a drizzle of honey.

Guac Bar

The Guac Bar was a popular destination for RB editors. | Photo by Jonathan Maze

Digital Editor Kimmy “Spoons” Kaczmarek

Tajin. A lot to choose from. But Tajin had a new menu everyday. My favorite was their sweets topped with Tajin. My top two were their tart and brownie. I enjoy Tajin already but mainly only had it on a select few things. Their booth introduced me to a few ways to add their products to dishes.

Bitchin' Sauce. I could have become their personal spokesperson for their products from how many times I came and tried them. They had about seven options to try, and I loved every one of them, but my top two would be the dill dip to the chocolate spread.

Editor-at-Large Peter Romeo

Hormel’s smoked turkey breast. Whatever instinct draws swallows to Capistrano has a human equivalent that works on show attendees. Come 4:20, they’re pulled to the shuttle buses and Uber waiting areas like zombies, knowing each moment translates into an exponentially greater wait time.

Those of us who seek volume over novelty know that’s the golden time for sampling. The aisles are clearer, and the sample providers want to move whatever product is left so it won’t have to be tossed.

The strategy worked Monday. The most satisfying thing I sampled was a veritable slab of Hormel’s smoked turkey breast. The “taste” was large enough to feed a family, and it was delicious.

FSD Editor-in-Chief Tara Fitzpatrick

Cherry Rose Coffee. The best bites on the show floor are the ones that make me glad to give up valuable stomach real estate. Flavors and or/textures that take tastebuds by surprise make it worth my while (and potential heartburn). Like the savory za’tar honey or the floral flavors found in beverages. I tried a cherry-rose coffee from Folgers that still tasted like a respectable cup of joe, not losing its coffee-ness in the midst of the floral flavor mash-up. 

Boba. And cheese. The boba I tried was working overtime, some with a pop/fizz coming from the inside, and others paired with mango, whipped cream and granola for a trendy start-the-day jolt just from the creativity. I also really enjoyed trying every single piece of cheese in Wisconsin Cheese’s extensive booth area. “We all try them all” is the pact I made with the FSD team, and I’m proud to say we did it! Smoky goudas, spicy sriracha blends, melancholy blues. The cheese curds with their signature squeak are always a win in my book, as is the bread cheese that’s grilled and so melty. The wheel of Parmesan with the crunchy, umami-bomb crystals was perfection.

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