On restaurant menus, texture matters more than you think

State of the Plate: RB menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse dishes on texture on restaurant menus. But while Americans are culinary adventurers, they remain pickier when it comes to how a food item feels.
Chicken Schnitzel
Crispy is big, such as with this Pretzel-Crusted Chicken Schnitzel from Lazy Dog. | Photo courtesy of Lazy Dog.

State of the Plate

Americans have become dining adventurers. Globalization, immigration, generational change and thriving food media have combined to broaden our collective palate and boost our willingness to engage with the culinary unknown.

Restaurants remain the gatekeepers and points of entry for unfamiliar foods, and over the years, chefs have steadily weaned diners away from the bland in favor of brighter, more assertive flavors. Their success is evident in recent chain promotions like Quiznos’ Kimchi Philly Sub, Grimaldi’s Exxtra Pepperoni & Hot Honey Pizza and Wendy’s Ghost Pepper Fries.

But while many consumers will happily turn up the heat with dash of Sriracha on their scrambled eggs, far fewer of us are willing to experiment with texture.

A story titled “Taste the Feeling” appeared in The New York Times Magazine last summer and reported that, while the Chinese language has an estimated 144 terms for food texture and Japanese more than 400, English lacks a similarly robust vocabulary. We also consume a much narrower range of textures, the author says, with crunchy and creamy our two most craveable.  

In other words, we are textural neophytes, stuck in rut between crunch on the one hand and cream on the other, which makes texture a kind of culinary final frontier.

We love crispy. According to Technomic’s Ignite Menu database, 63% of menus employ the term crispy, while crunch/crunchy turns up on 20% of bills of fare. The primal pleasure of sinking our teeth into a favorite dish and hearing the corresponding snap contribute hugely to our overall satisfaction. Smart operators respond by putting these signifiers right up front in the names and descriptions of their dishes.

Take McDonald’s, which introduced the Crispy Chicken Sandwich in 2021. The product performed well enough to be rechristened the McCrispy Chicken Sandwich in 2023, engendering an immediate sales jump that propelled the item to a billion-dollar brand. 

Legions of other operators also give crunchability top billing. IHOP’s Imported Crispy Shrimp reflects a recent major menu upgrade; Nando’s Peri-Peri’s Ranch Crunch Salad boasts “crispy” chickpeas and pita croutons; and Taco Cabana’s Ghost Pepper Ground Beef Double Crunch Pizza sits atop two “crispy” corn-and-flour tortillas.

The restaurant pantry is chockablock with munch makers like nuts and seeds, crusts and coatings. Many have global accents, such as the new Chicken al Pastor Bowl at T.G.I. Friday’s topped with tortilla strips or the limited-time-only Sunny Seoul Hash at First Watch finished with sesame seeds. The comforting, old-school Pretzel-Crusted Chicken Schnitzel at Lazy Dog features “crispy” hand-breaded, pretzel-crusted chicken breasts.

But it might be argued that Taco Bell, home of the madly successful Doritos Locos Tacos, remains the unofficial champion of chomp, with LTOs like Beefy Crunch Burrito with Flamin’ Hot Fritos and menu standards like Crunchwrap and Crunchy Taco Supreme.

warm crab dip

Smooth matters: Cheesecake Factory's Warm Crab Dip. | Photo courtesy of The Cheesecake Factory.

We like smooth, too. This is likely another primal response, one that traces back to the soft and silky baby foods that we’re fed in infancy. Technomic’s Ignite database reports a relatively modest penetration of creamy as a descriptor on 33% of menus and smooth on just under 5%.

However, if smooth and creamy aren’t as overtly promotable as crisp and crunchy, that doesn’t mean they’re any less appealing. After all, smoothies are their own popular menu category, and crème brȗlée literally and figuratively set the dessert category on fire a while back.

From the savory point of view, California-based Urban Plates does terrific menu merchandising with items like the new Lamb Osso Bucco plated with “creamy” polenta mascarpone, while the new Warm Crab Dip at The Cheesecake Factory blends crab, artichokes and “creamy” cheese.

The enduring popularity of dairy-based dippables is evidenced by the “creamy cheese” fondue at The Melting Pot, and at least one analyst has forecast raclette, a Swiss melted-cheese specialty, as a menu item to watch in 2024.

But we really don’t like slime. The Times article notes a whole world of textures shunned by Americans, like, say, viscosity or sponginess, which are culinary commonalities in other countries.

It appears that with greater affluence, consumption of more expensive foods like prime cuts of meat grows at the expense of humbler fare like offal. Tripe or tendon becomes both culturally unappealing and texturally unfamiliar to mainstream consumers.

There are also the ick- or ew-factor foods that Americans avoid. We don’t love snails, for example, and a recent Harris Poll revealed oysters as one of our most hated foods, though this may come as a surprise to many mollusk-loving coastal inhabitants. The pollsters specifically cited their “super slimy” mouthfeel as a turnoff.

Are our textural turnoffs reversible? In fact, there is reason to believe that we will slowly overcome longstanding bugaboos in this regard. After all, the steadily growing acceptance of spicier foods by much of the populace shows that dietary change is possible.

There are a few signs that such change may already be underway. Consider that Taiwanese teas with boba, chewy tapioca pearls, have been rapidly gaining in popularity, despite the vaguely slimy mouthfeel of the tiny spheres.

And with critics and bloggers around the country extolling its virtues, Hainan chicken may also be making inroads. Extremely popular throughout much of Southeast Asia, Malaysia and especially Singapore, it has thrown some crispy-crunchy-fried-chicken-loving American diners  for a loop.

Here the chicken is poached or boiled and presented in all its pale, yellow-skinned glory. Appearance aside, some consumers perceive its mouthfeel as slippery, if not slimy. But the approachability of the fragrant, garlicky rice that is cooked in the chicken broth and is an essential part of the dish, may serve to disarm reluctant diners and invite broader trial.

Other disrespected or overlooked foods may be a heavier lift. Although renewed interest in the regional cookery of the American South has led to the revival of sorghum and the rediscovery of grits, it’s not likely that favor will extend to mucilaginous okra any time soon—at least not in its stewed form.  

Still, we do have a history of eating beyond the crunch and the cream. Wiggly, jiggly Jell-O and the recent reconsideration of gelatin-based aspics, may signal that slowly, but surely, the texture tide will turn.  

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