The melding of Mexican ingredients and preparations into American restaurants acknowledges the popularity, acceptance and success that south-of-the-border fare has found.
When chefs reach for a pop of flavor, excitement and creativity, nearly anything from the world’s pantry is fair game. Asian sriracha sauce? Check. Middle Eastern tahini sauce? Check. Chipotle chiles, cilantro, masa harina? Check, check, check! The stream of inspiration and ingredients coming out of Mexico is bountiful and more than ready to mix it up on stateside menus—even at restaurants that serve predominantly American cuisine.
“In this business, you give people what they want,” says Allen Strong, owner of Courier Café in Urbana, Ill. The café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with each daypart’s offerings marked by Mexican flavor accents. In the morning, cha-cha-charritos and rancheros rarebit sit side-by-side with omelets and biscuits with gravy while lunchtime has a classic griddled quesadilla keeping company with a ribeye sandwich, Buffalo chicken wrap (spiced, it might be noted, not with the traditional hot sauce but with chipotles) and burgers. Come dinner hour, beer-battered fish tacos with pineapple pico de gallo, red cabbage, chipotle mayo and sour cream join such all-American fare as fried chicken, lasagna and broiled pork tenderloin.
“Mexican items are always popular and they sell well. People like the flavors they deliver and the freshness of the ingredients,” Strong says, adding that guests don’t necessarily think that they are eating Mexican when they order a buenas dias burrito or desert dippers. “Maybe in a Mexican restaurant they would think of it as Mexican food. But here, not really. They think of it as good, interesting food — what they want to eat that day.”
75% of diners like it when restaurants with mainstream menus also serve ethnic cuisines.
Irrefutable proof that Americans have fully accepted Mexican food can be found in Taco Bell Arena at Boise State University and the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. Both examples speak loud and proud about how Mexican food, once categorized as vaguely mysterious, slightly exotic and certainly ethnic, has entirely mainstreamed into the American culinary vernacular. Mexican has joined Italian and Chinese as once-foreign cuisines that have mixed it up so thoroughly in the melting pot that they now are fully part of it.
That process began a long time ago, says Ken Albala, professor of history and director of food studies at University of the Pacific, San Francisco. “When people are completely ignorant of a cuisine as Americans were a long time ago, they think it’s weird and that’s pretty much how they feel about the people whose cuisine it is.”
As Latino culture gained a foothold and flourished in the U.S., the cuisine adapted to the environment and the ingredients at hand. At some point, it becomes a little bit cool for Americans to venture outside their comfort zone and dine at a Mexican restaurant. At that point, says Albala, there’s no turning back. “Someone looks at it and thinks, ‘That’s interesting. Let me mass produce it in a way that people will really like it.’ That’s how ethnic cuisines end up in a can or a fast-food restaurant aimed at Anglo audiences,” notes Albala, adding that the trajectory also includes points at which authenticity reenters the picture, directed by cookbook authors, restaurants and a more demanding and food-savvy dining public.
“Mexican food in America is at a point at which it is ethnic but it’s also not. It retains its individuality as a cuisine while its ingredients and preparations have been fused into American menus,” says Albala.
Demographics also are a factor in the affection. Hispanics constitute approximately 17% of the population of the Unites States and while there are no statistics, it is safe to assume that for many of this group, Mexican food registers not as ethnic but as their primary food affiliation.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Restaurant Industry Forecast, consumers are more apt to eat ethnic food when dining out than they are at home, with two-thirds of respondents indicating that to be true. The NRA’s Global Palates: Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors in America survey released last year has more encouraging news. Fully 75% of those surveyed said they like it when restaurants with mainstream menus also serve ethnic cuisines.
That truth has not escaped notice of restaurant operators and the trend has become pervasive, spanning all segments of the industry. At Denver’s The Black Pearl, tomatillo Benedict with chili hollandaise appears on a brunch menu that is firmly rooted in American classicism. Along with a smoky beet salad with goat cheese and a grilled endive salad with blue cheese, Wolfert’s Roost in Irvington, N.Y. menus Shishito Caesar, a cross-cultural mix of roasted Shishitos, romaine lettuce, house-made croutons, chipotle-Caesar dressing and cotija cheese. The restaurant also has Bubbe’s Nachos, a Jewish-inflected riff that has a potato latke standing in for the tortilla and braised brisket, apple compote and horseradish cream. California Pizza Kitchen tops one of its flatbreads with spicy fennel sausage and fire-roasted poblano chiles. Even that most American of places, McDonald’s, taps the Mexican-inspired larder with Chipotle Chicken Snack Wraps.
“For us, it’s a natural to add these tastes to the menu,” says Courier Café’s Strong. “A lot of our customers have grown up on Mexican food and consider it to be familiar, very much a favorite. To add it to American preparations makes all the sense in the world.”
Perhaps that’s exactly what Applebee’s was thinking when it fused two across-the-border icons for its quesadilla burger, the beef patty jazzed up with Mexi ranch sauce, pico de gallo, bacon, Colby and Jack cheeses, the whole build tucked between griddled flour tortillas.
“There are so many ways that Mexican and American foods work together,” says Albala. “Why wouldn’t restaurants exploit that?”
Chipotles in adobo sauce
Add to mayonnaise, as a spread for avocado toast, in black bean soup
Scrambled eggs, on pizza, in mac and cheese
Ice cream sundaes, banana splits, with caramel dipping sauce
Green salsa, chicken chili, pozole, tomatillo Mary cocktail
Salsa/pico de gallo
Salad dressings, sandwich topping, omelet filling, garnish for soups
Ice cream, tea, latte, cocktails
Scrambled into migas, layered for lasagna, dessert nachos