Food

Roast pig, ancient grains and Perkins' menu mission

Menu Talk: Pat and Bret introduce listeners to “population wheat,” chat about cooking in a China box and hear from Mindy Armstrong about the evolution of family dining at Perkins and Huddle House.

Despite what are usually characterized as the “lazy days of summer,” there’s been a lot of menu action this week.

Pat and Bret both attended an outdoor pig roast at Back Bar in the Eventi Hotel in New York City. The patio party was hosted by Chef Laurent Tourondel and his team, who operate the dining venues at the hotel. They started cooking the pigs at noon, inside a charcoal-fired China box or “caja chino,” which is a Cuban style of cooking pork.

The pigs were roasted to perfection by 6 p.m. with burnished, crackly skin and tender meat. The cooks sliced the pork and sandwiched it in bao buns with a creamy, garlicky green sauce. Also on offer was chicken shawarma and elote, where the ears of corn were cooked over live fire and topped with cotija cheese and spices.

Bret was a guest at Heritage Grand Bakery, a grab-and-go eatery that’s connected to a full-service restaurant with wood-burning pizza ovens. The owner, Lou Ramirez, is into ancient grains and uses a product called “population wheat” for baking. It’s a type of wheat that results from tossing 17 different grains into a field, and whatever sprouts up is harvested and milled.

Chef Ramirez uses population wheat in pizza crust and in a whole-grain pasta that’s served with a mushroom sauce. Both check the boxes for sustainability, healthfulness and abundant flavor.

Our guest this week was Mindy Armstrong, VP of menu innovation at Perkins and Huddle House. Perkins is on a revitalization journey, recently changing its name from Perkins Restaurant & Bakery to Perkins American Food Co.

But Armstrong points out that the bakery will remain a differentiator, setting the chain apart in the family-dining segment. Pies are still menu mainstays, as are breakfast and comfort foods, but the plan is to offer more portable items, lean into sandwiches and burgers and innovate the beverage lineup.

At Huddle House, the R&D strategy focuses on the core menu instead of creating limited-time specials. And with both chains, it’s risky to get too wild with flavor.

Family-dining chains seem to be on a reinvention streak lately, with Cracker Barrel, Friendly’s, Denny’s and now Perkins and even Huddle House all refreshing their menus and images. It will be interesting to watch this segment in the months ahead.

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Menu Talk is a collaboration between Restaurant Business Senior Menu Editor Pat Cobe and Bret Thorn, senior food & beverage editor of Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality. You can subscribe to it wherever you listen to podcasts.

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