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Streetwise snacks

Chefs favor global flavors to feed the snacking trend.
Photograph courtesy of Lazy Dog Cafe

When Beaker & Gray opened four years ago in the Wynwood section of Miami, it was a dinner-only restaurant. Then more and more businesses moved into the neighborhood, and the former warehouse district became a hip destination for dining and the arts. Chef-owner Brian Nasajon added a lunch menu and a simple happy hour. But the demand and traffic for happy hours kept going up, he says, and irregular work schedules meant that lunch hour extended into late afternoon. The result: Beaker & Gray now operates on more flexible hours and has expanded its snack options.

Beaker & Gray’s customers are part of a nationwide trend: Americans are snacking more often and seeking more exciting snacks. In fact, Technomic Ignite consumer data reveals that almost 14% of restaurant visits are for a snack, especially as the definition of a snack continues to change and expand.

This trend may be on the ascent in the U.S., but the eating style is already deeply ingrained in many global cuisines. Now chefs are tapping into that street food culture for snack ideas that can work on their menus.

Transitioning from lunch to dinner

“In Miami, Cuban croquettas are sold on the street,” says Nasajon, who was raised in that city. Childhood memories inspired him to create cheeseburger croquettas ($13), a blend of ground beef, bacon jam, potato puree and aji-infused Peruvian cheese sauce. They join tamarind-spiced Asian chicken wings ($14) in the Bites section of the Midday Menu, which is served from 4-6 p.m. The goal is to offer an abbreviated menu of hearty, flavorful snacks and smaller meals at affordable prices without overtaxing the kitchen, says Nasajon. His lunch and/or dinner labor force can easily cover this transition time, he says, and many ingredients are cross-utilized from other menus.

Beaker & Gray also offers a Happy Hour menu for early-evening (4-7 p.m.) and late-night (11 p.m-2 a.m.) customers. Promotionally priced snacks ($5-$7), including yucca fries with chimichurri aioli and the signature adzuki falafel, take cues from street foods. “We elevate falafel by making it with adzuki beans, which are lighter and airier than chickpeas. And we serve it with housemade sauces: curry barbecue and jalapeno ranch,” says Nasajon. The falafel—which can be ordered as a shareable—is a customer favorite, he adds.

beaker & gray falafel

Photograph courtesy of Beaker & Gray

Driving demand

Ethnic-influenced shareables and snacks also are a happy hour staple at Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, says Gabe Caliendo, VP of food and beverage for the 33-unit chain. “We try to make something unique and globally flavored that guests can only get during this small window of time. That’s how we create demand.”

Caliendo refers to Lazy Dog’s two happy hours—3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m.-close—as “shoulder periods” geared to snacks and drinks. But instead of offering deep discounts, he and his team come up with fun and interesting bites in the $5-$8 range. New for fall are pork belly pancakes inspired by street cart food in China and lamb barbacoa tacos, a twist on Mexican street tacos. Also on offer are jackfruit falafel tacos, a Middle Eastern-Mexican hybrid served in lettuce cups instead of tortillas. “Not all of these are authentic street snacks, but the flavors are on target,” says Caliendo.

Value is a selling point, too. Most snacks come three or four to an order for ease of sharing and give guests a chance to “experience fun flavors with less risk,” he adds. If customers come in for a taco entree, it will set them back $14—double the price of bites. And because guests can’t get these items any other time of day, the happy hour menu doesn’t take business away from lunch or dinner, Caliendo says.

jackfruit falafel tacos

Photograph courtesy of Lazy Dog Cafe

All-day snacking in the burbs

Dim sum are a draw at Chicago’s polished-casual Imperial Lamian, especially during the 3-5 p.m. time slot on weekdays. So when managing partner Vincent Lawrence opened the more casual Phat Phat in suburban Schaumburg, Ill., this fall, he decided on an all-day menu featuring several versions of the snackable Chinese dumplings.

“Phat Phat is in a residential area, so we don’t yet know what the midafternoon crowd will be like,” says Lawrence. But with operating hours from brunch to closing, dim sum fits today’s eating styles.

A Phat Phat specialty is sheng jian bao, steamed and pan-fried pork dumplings originating in Shanghai, where they are typically cooked in cast-iron pans on the side of the road. Phat Phat prepares them authentically—crispy on the outside and soupy inside—but makes the bao bite-size for sharing and snacking. Also on offer is a lamb dumpling flavored with Szechuan peppercorns. It’s pleated differently, in the style of Northern China, Lawrence explains. The dim sum are priced at $6-$7 for six pieces.

Hand-pulled noodles, served in large portions at Imperial Lamian, are downsized at Phat Phat. Street food-inspired wonton mee come in two varieties—braised and tossed with roast duck or wok-fried and mixed with oxtail, peppers and bean sprouts.

Lawrence wants to replicate Phat Phat, planning a second location to open in 2020 in Irvine, Calif. It will also feature an all-day menu filled with snackable dim sum.

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