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Carnitas Nachos. Photo courtesy of National Pork Board. For more information about pork, visit PorkBeInspired.com.
Creative twists on traditional recipes can boost appetizer sales
By Kathleen Furore
Customers expect to find chips, salsa, guacamole—and probably the practically ubiquitous ground beef- and melted cheese-topped nachos—when dining out at most Mexican restaurants. But today, many establishments are exceeding expectations by menuing appetizers with unexpected twists.
Arepas made with polenta and brimming with chicken tinga, pico de gallo and queso fresco at Maya Del Sol in Oak Park, Ill. Lamb picadillo-stuffed empanadas at Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila in Albuquerque. Lightly buttered, fried avocado served with chipotle aioli at New York City’s Sombrero. Brussels Sprout Salad with avocado, pepitas, chile, cotija cheese, and lemon-serrano vinaigrette at Dos Camino Modern Mexican & Tequila Lounge’s six restaurants in New York City, New Jersey and Florida.
Those examples showcase the creative touches chefs are putting on traditional recipes in a quest to take Mexican and Latin botanas to a new level of culinary excellence.
Use Appetizers to Experiment and Up-sell
The appetizer section of any restaurant’s menu is a great place to experiment with recipes that ultimately could become entrees, and to spotlight weekly or monthly specials that can boost sales.
“Customers are more willing to try something new if it doesn’t cost a lot. So they may take a chance on new appetizer, so long as they know they can still order their favorite main course for dinner,” says Betsy Craig, founder and CEO of MenuTrinfo, a National Restaurant Association partner that provides nutritional, allergen and gluten-free menu analysis and training for restaurant operators.
Those are things Maya Del Sol’s executive chef, Rhea Brown, keeps in mind when creating appetizers that incorporate ingredients used in Mexico and throughout Latin America. “We try to cover Mexican, Brazilian, Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian food—the cuisines of all the Latin countries when we can—by using the cooking techniques and the kinds of ingredients, like peppers and herbs, [chefs in those countries] use,” Brown says.
The restaurant’s Blackened Scalloped Tacos is one example of a first-course offering that transitioned to the entrée menu. “We started serving two- to three-ounce portions of the Blackened Scallop as an appetizer. Our customers wanted more, so we added more and turned it into an entrée,” says the Jamaican-born Brown, who started his career as a busboy at age 17. (He ended up cooking instead of busing tables when someone asked if he could cook when one chef was a no-show. “I said ‘I’ll try,’ and the rest is history!” laughs Brown, whose culinary talents carried him to the kitchens of Chicago’s Signature Room and Carnivale before landing him the head job in Maya Del Sol’s kitchen two years ago.)
Listening closely to customers also prompted Brown to create a completely new, innovative dish that has proven a success on the appetizer menu. “We were running masa sopes,” he recalls. “Our guests loved them, but some of our customers said they wanted something lighter.”
The result? Brown tweaked the recipe by using polenta, eggs, cheese and sugar to create the sope. “I cooked the polenta, cooled it to about 50°F, folded in egg yolks, cheese and sugar, then formed the dough into 4-ounce balls that I seared, cut in half, and then molded into cups,” he explains. After flash-frying the cups, he filled them with chicken tinga.
Arepas de Tinga—also made with polenta and chicken tinga, then topped with pico de gallo and queso fresco—have replaced the sopes on the most recent appetizer roster. The current appetizer list also includes Mixto Ceviche, a combination of salmon, shrimp, and the market fish from Maya’s weekly special, flavored with habanero, ginger, yuzu and roasted red bell pepper. “I got the idea because we had all of this fish coming in, so I decided to use the scraps of fish that were left over in the ceviche,” Brown explains.
Brown’s lighter take on some of the appetizer offerings meshes well with another trend the National Restaurant Association’s 2014 Restaurant Industry Forecast describes: healthy dining.
“Eight in 10 consumers say there are more healthful options on restaurant menus now than two years ago, and 72 percent say they are more likely to visit restaurants with healthy menu options,” the forecast says.
Appetizers are also ideal for incorporating fresh produce, which the National Restaurant Association says “is being pushed to the top of menus” due, in part, to the FDA’s proposed ban on trans fats and the rising protein costs expected to affect restaurant operations this year.
While following trends and trying new recipes can help chefs create profitable appetizer menus, keeping tried and true favorites is also important—something Brown has learned with Maya Del Sol’s Braised Beef Nachos made with chuck eye braised at 250°F for four hours, then seared and seasoned with water, mango stock, garlic, sugar, honey, apple cider vinegar and garlic.
“They are our signature and they’re not going anywhere!” Brown says of the nachos that have been a customer favorite since Maya Del Sol opened its doors in October 2007.
In its 2014 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, the National Restaurant Association identified the year’s top appetizer trends. el Restaurante perused the web to find examples of restaurants offering these categories of “trending” dishes.
Charcuterie (House Cured Meats). Amada in Philadelphia offers “Charcutería y Quesos.” Meat selections include Chorizo Pamplona and Chorizo Blanco, Jamón Serrano and Jamón Iberico, Salchichon and Lomo Embuchado. Featured cheeses include Aged Manchego, Fresh Queso de Cabra, Cana de Cabra, Garrotxa, Ermesenda and La Peral.
Vegetarian Appetizers. Flacos in Berkely, Calif., specializes in vegetarian Mexican food. The menu is full of appetizer-appropriate selections such as taquitos, soy protein rolled in a corn tortilla and priced at only $2.34 each; and soy-gluten free tamales, roasted organic chile poblano, refried pinto beans and potatoes wrapped inside organic corn masa and steamed in corn husks, for just $4.52 per tamal.
Ethnic/ Street Inspired Appetizers. Puesto Mexican Street Food in La Jolla and San Diego features tacos including Chicken al Pastor with crispy melted cheese, tinga (hibiscus, chipotle), pineapple; and Carne Asada with melted cheese and cactus priced at 2/$6.95, 3/8.95. And at Dos Caminos Modern Mexican & Tequila Lounge’s locations in New York, New Jersey and Florida, the Mexico City Street Quesadillas are filled with field greens, roasted beets, queso de mano, herb salsa verde, crema Mexicana.
Ethic Dips. Guacamole and salsa fit into this category. Interesting options include Dos Caminos’ made-to-order Guacamole in Traditional; Shrimp, Chorizo & Roasted Tomato; Mango, Papaya-Habanero, and Bacon; and Chicharron, Pickled Jalapeño varieties. At Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila, customers can choose between Honey Chipotle Sauce and Chile De Arbol Sauce for the popular Border Wings.