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OPINIONFood

Top food and drink finds at the National Restaurant Association Show

If you’re looking for the next menu must-have, RB editors did the legwork, tasting our way through the Show. These are our picks.
Plant-based poke
Finless Foods tuna poke/Photo courtesy of Heather Lalley

The 2022 National Restaurant Association kicked off Saturday at McCormick Place in Chicago and the Restaurant Business editors hit the floor with our palates primed. We tasted, sipped and sampled, then picked out a the items we thought would add value, a unique flavor profile or an innovative twist to the menu.

We also noticed several mega-trends that emerged among the food and beverage companies exhibiting at this year’s Show. Look for new types of plant-based proteins, zero-alcohol beverages as stand-alone cocktails or mixers, healthy portable snacks and drinks, next-wave bubble tea iterations and products with a story to tell.

Blind Tiger is a bottled zero-proof drink line with products that have the same flavor profiles as classic cocktails. Two standouts are the Bees Knees and the Southside, which can be poured over ice and sipped as-is for a convenient, labor-saving mocktail, or used as a mixer with the addition of spirits.

Blind Tiger mixers

Another addition to your bar list might be Gruvi Bubbly Rose. The company is a first-time exhibitor and this alcohol-free wine tastes very much like the alcoholic version. There’s also a bubbly Prosecco and a red wine. Gruvi also has a selection of zero-proof beers that have all the flavor of their buzzy counterparts. There’s a Juicy IPA, Mocha Nitro Stout and a Lager.

On the boozy side, there was whiskey, classic old-fashioned syrup and cocktail cherries, all from Traverse City Whiskey Company. Traverse City, Mich., is the cherry-growing capital of the U.S., so it makes sense that the cherries coming out of there would be top notch. Mixed together in an Old Fashioned cocktail with the whiskey and syrup, the three products made for an authentic and tasty drink that saves labor and time behind the bar.

Old Fashioned fixings

Cold water infusions from Twinings, the tea company, are a quick and healthy way to enhance water with herbal and fruit flavors. Sachets of both the watermelon-mint and passion fruit, mango & blood orange can be steeped in water to make a lower-sugar alternative to sweetened iced teas and soft drinks. Plus, they deliver more flavor with less waste and cost than bottled infused waters.

infused tea

While plant-based beef and pork products were in abundance at past Shows, this year tuna and chicken made an impression. Producers have definitely improved the flavor and texture of these analogs, with Finless Foods tuna substitute a good example. It uses the dense flesh of the winter melon to mimic raw tuna and, served in a poke bowl preparation, it was impossible to distinguish this faux tuna from the real thing.

Tindle’s plant-based chicken, which earned a FABI award this year for food innovation, gets its flavor from a proprietary ingredient called Lipi, a combination of sunflower oil and “natural flavors” that stand in for chicken fat. This fried chicken sandwich application hit the spot (with a big assist from the pickle) and seemed juicier than other plant-based chicken we’ve tried. Tindle’s flavor and texture are remarkably similar to the real thing and they’d be a suitable stand-in on virtually any menu for white meat chicken.

Yo! featured a sunnyside-up egg that was 100% plant based. The white is made from peas, and the yolk comes from chickpeas. What makes it an attractive alternative to actual eggs is the  yolk: It runs just as a real yolk does, and the taste is nearly identical.  

Yo! egg

So much of the hype at the show is around plant-based meat items and for good reason. A lot of operators are interested in the product, hoping to catch a wave while it is rising. But few things beat a good-old hunk of steak topped with chimichurri and few things do as well. Steak chains have thrived coming out of the pandemic and the Argentinian grass-fed beef we tasted makes a worthy menu addition.

Bossen Bursting Boba are juice-filled tapioca pearls that burst in your mouth, like a combination between a Gusher and Pop Rocks. They can be ordered by the bucket and added to a variety of drinks from tea to cocktails. Given the rise in boba concepts in the U.S., don’t be surprised to see these popping up at more bubble tea shops soon.

boba ice cream

Boba are also popping up in ice cream. Little Jasmine introduced two variations—Boba Strawberry and Boba Brown Sugar ice creams. The slightly chewy pearls add another layer of texture to ice cream and it would be fun to add a scoop to bubble tea or iced coffee or as a cake or pie topping.

First time selling in foodservice is Bard Valley Natural Delights, a company marketing dates. It was mindboggling how many applications their chef presented: Date puree blended into smoothies; chopped dates combined with chickpeas and spicy beef in empanadas; and caramelized chicken and date salad with tahini dressing using whole Medjool dates and date syrup. These value-added, natural products would keep a menu up-to-date.

Date smoothies

There are lots of pizza and flatbread offerings at the Bellavita Italian Pavilion, but it’s tough to beat the crusts produced at the Infibra booth. The company sells flour blends that bake into pizza doughs that are the perfect combination of crispy and chewy.

Infibra pizza

Portable and healthy are two snacking trends, and Delmonte’s fresh frozen pineapple spears make it easy to eat fruit on the go. The single-serve packs would be great for K-12 schools, health care or college dining, as well as an addition to the refrigerated case to grab and go along with a beverage or salad.  

Fresh frozen pineapple

Bulk dispensers of roasted and crispy vegetable snacks from Taxi, a company from Spain, also caught our eye. Included in the lineup are roasted giant corn, chickpeas, curry lentils and barbecue mix. These vegetable-based snacks can double as salad mix-ins or sandwich toppers.

The National Restaurant Association Show runs through Tuesday.

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