Chef Dave Zino | October 10, 2019
For years, when it came to Asian-focused cuisine, Americanized Chinese was the only game in town. The cuisine was defined by ubiquitous items like wontons and egg rolls. Today, there is so much more: flavors from Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are influencing dishes across the country. These cuisines can stand on their own or be fused together, evidenced by the French-Vietnamese, Pacific-Rim and Pan-Asian fare trending on menus today.
Trends tend to be cyclical. What was hot last year could be yesterday’s news today. In the 90’s we saw the emergence of Sriracha, a spicy Asian chili-garlic sauce. Back then one would only see it in the hippest Asian restaurants. Today, we see it in many mainstream eateries sitting next to ketchup and mustard. Ingredients, such as Szechuan peppercorns, lotus seed paste, ponzu and black vinegar are becoming popular and taking flavor to the next level. If you are into umami, there is plenty of it in Asian cuisine. Oyster sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce and fish sauce are just a few of the umami enhancers found in the Asian pantry. Marry them with beef, and you have a flavor powerhouse.
Lettuce Entertain You, a Chicago based restaurant group, developed a cool limited-service Chinese concept – Wow Bao. They serve rice bowls, salads, pot stickers and bao. Bao is a yeast-based bun that can stuffed with savory or sweet fillings. It dates back to the three-kingdom period in China.
The Wow Bao stores add technology to the food fun. Orders are placed via in-store kiosks or on their mobile app and the guest’s name appears on a screen above an animated cubby wall. When the order is ready, the name is highlighted in green with a cubby number next to it. The customer finds the cubby, taps on the window twice to open the cubby and retrieve their order.
Ramen, once the go-to-meal for starving college students, has graduated from the dorm to downtown. Furious Spoon, another Chicago chain, is taking ramen to the next level. Their motto is, “Where Ramen meets Hip Hop.” Their White Pepper Beef Gyudon Rice Bowl is always a crowd favorite, as is the Oshinko Pickle Plate. They have plenty of fun house-made cocktails to complete the meal.
Beef is a staple on Korean-inspired menus. Favorites include Beef Bibimbap, Bulgogi and Kalbi ribs (Korean short ribs). In 2015 Gochujang, a Korean hot sauce, made its way into the American food scene. Noodles & Company, a Denver-based fast casual chain, rolled out Korean Meatballs with Gochujang as a limited time offer.
Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, such as Napa cabbage and Korean radish, made with a wide variety of seasonings. Once known only to the Korean community, it is now appearing on many menus and becoming a staple of Asian fusion fare. Kimchi stands on its own but is also popular as an ingredient in dishes such as kimchi fried rice, kimchi pancakes and kimchi soup.
P.F. Chang’s, a Scottsdale, AZ based chain, recently introduced Beef Pot Stickers on their Dim Sum menu as a new twist on a classic. Hand-folded dumplings are filled with a savory Mongolian beef filling and served with a sweet and savory dipping sauce. Their lunch and dinner menus also have several beef centric dishes available.
Expect to see even more growth in unique and beef-focused Asian cuisine in the coming years. Millennials and Gen Zers have adventurous palettes and love international cuisine. This bodes well for beef as it shines when paired with these flavors. Trends may come and go, but beef will always be what’s for dinner.