Credit chipotles—the humble smoke-dried jalapenos now flavoring everything from vinaigrettes to cheese—with opening operators’ and consumers’ minds to the versatility of chiles. And with chipotles’ smoky heat now a flavor mainstay on fast-casual restaurant menus, operators are exploring other ways they can use chiles to enliven menu items.
Not necessarily going after diners who seek extreme heat, many fast-casual operators instead are employing chiles to add flavor complexity and a hit of heat rather than five-alarm fire. Chiles also are a valuable menu-item addition from a health standpoint; they can pack a lot of distinctive flavor into a small, low-calorie, low-salt package. The results of operators’ chile experimentation are bold new menu items that offer spicy twists on familiar fare.
The number of menu items featuring the term “chile,” “jalapeno,” “ancho,” “chipotle,” “habanero” or “poblano” at fast-casual concepts among the country’s Top 500 restaurant chains climbed nearly 33 percent (to 210 items from 158) from the first quarter of 2012 to the first quarter of this year, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor database. And the number of items described on menus as “spicy” rose 19 percent to 157 from 132.
Mexican and Asian concepts, predictably, lead the way in their use of chiles, but chiles add flavor complexity at a range of classically American concepts, too. Wildflower Bread Company, for example, offers a honey-cured ham and Swiss sandwich that’s served on pasilla chile rye bread. Brixx Wood Fired Pizza’s Spicy Shrimp pizza pairs spicy shrimp with a sriracha base and adds sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, mozzarella, goat cheese and a garnish of fresh basil. And Burgerville boasts the Green Chile Cheddar Egg sandwich, featuring a fried egg, white Cheddar and roasted poblano pepper on a toasted bagel or English muffin.
Here’s a look at a range of peppery selections fast-casual chains have added to menus so far in 2013.
- Pei Wei Asian Diner: Mandarin Kung Pao bowl—chile-seared soy sauce, green onions, garlic, snap peas, carrots, peanuts and choice of protein served with white or brown steamed rice.
- Au Bon Pain: Southwest Egg Sandwich—two fresh eggs, applewood-smoked bacon, sliced tomatoes and Cheddar cheese served with chipotle spread on a skinny wheat bagel.
- Boloco: Oaxaca Mole Burrito—mole turkey, black beans, melted cheese, roasted squash medley, brown rice and chipotle sour cream.
- Which Wich Superior Sandwiches: Huevos Rancheros Bowl—egg, salsa and jalapeno served on a bed of shredded lettuce or spinach, with a choice of cheese and condiments.
- Taco Bueno: Chicken Skinny Bowl—Grilled white-meat chicken, black beans, pico de gallo, fiesta corn salsa, grilled onions and peppers and chipotle citrus vinaigrette.
The audience for spicy fare is significant: 40 percent of consumers surveyed for Technomic’s 2012 Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report said they prefer to order ethnic foods with bold and spicy flavors rather than mild flavors. The preference was strongest among black/African-American (46 percent) and Hispanic (45 percent) consumers.
Whether incorporated into a tortilla, a spice rub or a sandwich spread, chiles offer operators an uncomplicated way to add interest and deliver the creative, assertive flavor profiles that consumers increasingly say they want.