Skip navigation


As Americans demand Latin flavors, savvy restaurateurs step

up with creative offerings and "real" experiences.


Americans hunger for Latin foods. From fast casual outlets to some of the United States’ most prestigious restaurants, operators are finding that sating Americans’ appetites for the flavors and ingredients of Latin America is good business.

What’s behind this phenomenon? For one, in an age of unprecedented information access, our world is shrinking. Television and the Internet have educated us about foreign cultures, piquing our interest in new places and experiences. Moreover, the information age has given rise to a level of food sophistication among Americans previously unseen. Border Grill’s Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, Frontera Grill’s Rick Bayless, Calle Ocho’s Alex Garcia and others have taken to the airwaves of The Food Network and PBS, making Americans well-versed in the dishes of Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.

Of course, also driving the demand for Latin foods is the United States’ increasing Hispanic population. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 35 million Hispanics reside in the U.S.–that’s 12% of the population, 39% of which is foreign-born. By 2007, the Hispanic population will have risen by another five million people, to 40.4 million, representing 13.8% of the population.

But the reason for the enduring popularity of Latin and Latin-inspired food goes beyond our growing international sophistication and shifting ethnic demographics. The fact is, many Americans of every background can’t get enough of the diverse flavors and native dishes of Latin America. It’s part of our enduring desire for new experiences and new and exciting tastes.

In recent years, Americans’ collective definition of "Latin" food has gone beyond the Americanized, Tex-Mex’ed interpretations of Mexican food that emerged in the 1980s. It’s even gone beyond the sophisticated Nuevo Latino movement created and made hugely popular by Miami’s "Mango Gang" in the early 90s. Today, most consumers recognize that under the "Latin" or "Latin American" umbrellas come the foods of Mexico’s various regions, of Central and South America, and of the Caribbean. Moreover, many consumers are demanding "authentic" foods and experiences. They want the real deal, or at least something that’s reasonably close and appealing to American palates.

Upscale eateries offer Nuevo Latino,
pan-Latin experiences

It’s this desire for authenticity that will shape much of the Latin restaurant scene in the near future, says famed Nuevo Latino restaurateur Douglas Rodriguez. Although Nuevo Latino is still hot, many diners will demand more authenticity from a Latin experience, and for many of them, Nuevo Latino will no longer fit the bill.

"Latin will become more authentic, and not so inventive," Rodriguez predicts. "Today, if you say your cooking is ‘Nuevo Latino,’ you’re protected. But as the public becomes more educated, they will be less forgiving of a place that bastardizes the cuisine. You’ll have more specific restaurants focusing on things like Northern Latin American cooking, or Brazilian or Argentinean or Venezuelan," says Rodriguez. "Just as nouvelle cuisine evolved into something more classic, Nuevo Latino will fade into something more authentic."

But Guillermo Pernot, of ¡Pasión!, Philadelphia thinks that the market for Nuevo Latino is staying right where it is. Authenticity, he says, "is not that important to customers. What they’re looking for is something new and innovative and explosive."

Rick Bayless, widely credited for introducing "authentic" Mexican regional cuisine to the U.S. in 1987 with his groundbreaking Frontera Grill in Chicago, expounds on this idea: Authenticity, he says, must take a back seat to both creativity and palatability. Bayless says, "Cooking is not painting by numbers. You cannot be so concerned about getting it right that you forget how to cook from your heart." Moreover, he adds, if "real" doesn’t taste great, your restaurant will be empty. "Badly prepared authentic food is never going to win anyone’s heart. I see authenticity as a support to good food."

Of course, "good" might be an understatement when describing the way Bayless cooks. In 1995, he earned the James Beard National Chef award, marking the first time an ethnic cuisine was given the honor. The milestone not only gave an air of legitimacy to Mexican cuisine, but illuminated the idea that great food can come from diverse backgrounds. Latin cuisine has been legitimized even further with the James Beard Society’s recognition of Douglas Rodriguez in the form of nominations for the Rising Star Chef of the Year and Best Chef, New York awards; and with Guillermo Pernot’s nomination for Beard’s best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic award. Pernot was also given the honor of Esquire’s "Chef of the Year" in 1999.

But back to the idea of authenticity. If you are looking for the most traditional translations, look to high-end Latin operations like Bayless’ and Rodriguez’s. Having left the operation at which he made Nuevo Latino famous, Patria, Rodriguez now operates Chicama and Pipa in Manhattan, as well as the new Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia, where his partner is Stephen Starr.

At Chicama, a pan-Latin effort that’s heavy in Peruvian influence, the most coveted spots are at the mojito bar and at the red-hot ceviche bar. The seafood that’s "cooked" by marinating it in citrus juices has become increasingly popular at higher-end U.S. destinations, and Rodriguez predicts the ceviche trend will give sushi a run for its money. Rodriguez led the pack in bringing ceviche to the U.S., most notably at Chicama, where he offers 12 versions.

At the sleek and modern Alma de Cuba–boasting art meant to evoke a pre-Castro tobacco plantation–Rodriguez, a Cuban-American, creates modern interpretations of Cuban classics, as well as dishes inspired by that country’s cooking. Best sellers include red bean soup with pumpkin and chorizo and crispy fried whole snapper with coconut conch rice and marinated cabbage.

At Jicama, Louisville, Kentucky, chef-owner Anthony Lamas’ Nuevo Latino is selling like hotcakes. Lamas says that although guests want to feel like they’re getting something authentic, his customers are more interested in the overall flavor. "They don’t mind that I’ll take a traditional dish and Americanize it," he says.

Lamas, who grew up eating the foods of both his father’s Puerto Rican and his mother’s Mexican families, enjoys "mixing it up," such as adding traditional Mexican spices to fish associated with the Caribbean. Here, as at Chicama, ceviche steals the show. Most popular are a shrimp with avocado and tomato and a sea scallop with passion fruit, serrano chilis and mojo. Lamas also extended the technique to other foods, including a beef tenderloin ceviche grilled medium rare and mixed with lime, red onion, and serrano chilis.

Though first-timers "are afraid of it being raw," says Lamas, "once they’re educated, they’re not as reluctant. Our regulars progress and become more and more adventuresome."

Lamas borrows heavily from the coastal regions of Latin America for his seafood menu and daily fish specials. Besides the expected snapper and Chilean sea bass, he offers Chilean salmon with grapefruit dill marinade. Puerto Rico inspired Lamas’ huachinango y camarones (pan-roasted snapper and grilled shrimp) with roasted tomatillo sauce and fried leeks.

Back on the East Coast, Rafael Palomino, who has operated one of NYC’s most popular Nuevo Latino destinations, Sonora, since 1998, recently launched a sister restaurant by the same name in suburban Port Chester, N.Y. (The original Sonora will be renamed "Vida" this month, and its menu re-written with lower price points. The changes sprung from the economic and emotional aftermath of 9/11.)

Palomino says his suburban Sonora customers, the finicky Greenwich set, are highly knowledgeable about foods of the world and demand authenticity. "They realize that Latino is not just rice and beans. They are very picky."

At Sonora, Palomino–born in Bogota, classically trained, and schooled under luminaries like Charlie Trotter–toils in both Latin American and Nuevo Latino cooking. For his traditional offerings, he takes few liberties, but under the Nuevo Latino umbrella he says he "interprets those foods to make them unique, sexy and attractive." The result? Items like Chilean sea bass with a yucca crust served over quinoa grains and passion fruit sauce; and free range chicken grilled with yucca fries with a peanut barbecue sauce–Palomino’s "nuevo" version of a mole.

Palomino’s more traditional offerings include a tiradito–beef marinated in lime and olive oil–a flavor he likens to a carpachio. Argentina inspired a chupe, a chowder made of red snapper and yucca. From his native Colombia comes another soup, ajico, with three types of potatoes, corn and free range chicken, topped with crème fraiche, capers and guascas.

Empanadas, meat- and vegetable-filled turnovers, are popular at the posh Sonora, and Palomino recently introduced a Colombian sirloin version with aji sauce. Ceviches rule here, too. The newest is an Ecuadorian shrimp with orange and lime juices and tomatoes. For dessert, Palomino’s dulce de leche cheesecake finished with a guava coulis is a must-have.

Nuevo Latino is the order of the day at ¡Pasión!, where Guillermo Pernot just unveiled a new menu that includes items like a conejito, a rabbit loin and salmon gravlax matambre, served with grilled papya escabeche salad and mustard vinaigrette. (It’s a take-off of his mother’s version, made with beef.) Another new item is a salmon crusted with plantains and wasabi peas, served with fufu, a sweet plantain mash, and a recao beurre blanc.

In Arlington, Va. another operator who works in Neuvo Latino is Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld. Of his new restaurant, Gua-Rapo, he says, "I’m trying to take Latin American flavor and apply it to American tastes." His Nuevo Latino has an eye toward healthfulness. "I’m not giving Americans the same empanada they’d get in South America," says Fraga-Rosenfeld. His are baked, not fried. He also lightens up on the heavy spices like cumin. But customers are becoming more daring. "Two years ago, no one would touch something like ceviche, now the response is favorable."

With casual dining price points, Gua-Rapo’s menu is engineered to encourage bi-weekly visits. Fraga-Rosenfeld says the menu is based on the native foods of the Andes regions, as well as Colombia, Venezuela and Paraguay. Best sellers include the empanadas as well as arepas, cornbread stuffed with cheeses, beef or pork. Also popular is Gua-Rapo’s churrasco, a traditional Argentinean steak. At Gua-Rapo, it’s served spicy with white rice, yucca hash and chimichurri.

The name Gua-Rapo comes from a traditional Latin American drink, "guarapo," made with sugar cane juice. Like many martini menus, the guarapo can take on many variations, most often combined with alcohol and flavorings, such as Gua-Rapo restaurant’s guarapo de frambueso, made with rum, raspberry puree, orange juice and cranberry juice with a twist of lime. Fraga-Rosenfeld says to expect to see guarapos, like Mojitos, cropping up on Latin menus across the U.S.

Regional focus dominates high-end
Mexican restaurants

For several years, higher-end Mexican restaurants have focused on regional cooking. Zarela Martinez, owner of NYC’s Zarela, as well as the recently-launched Danzon, says, "We have always said that Mexican regional will get here, but now it really has."

While Zarela offers the foods of many Mexican regions, Danzon has commited itself to the state of Vercruz. The restaurant stemmed from a book and public television series Martinez did on the cooking of this coastal state. But, explains Martinez, it has taken a while to catch on. "Even the press didn’t get it," she says. "But my Hispanic guests got it because it’s traditional dishes presented beautifully." She says a pork with pumpkin sauce is a popular entree, as is the manchamanteles de pato, roasted half duck with a tomato red chile sauce, dried apricots, prunes, raisins and pineapple.

"At first you say, ‘This is not Mexican food. It has Afro-Cuban, Caribbean and Mediterranean influences, as well as a lot of seafood." A bevy of ingredients reflects the state’s diversity. From its mountainous regions come ingredients like mushrooms, flowers, greens, fruits and vegetables. Veracruz’s coastal cuisine is heavy on seafood. In addition to the diversity these areas bring, Martinez explains that there are seven distinctive cuisine regions within this long, narrow state.

Of her flagship Zarela, Martinez says, "We’re starting to get very interested in the Yucatan and the other Mayan lands–Campeche, Tapas and Tabasco. She also wants to experiment with the Lebanese-influenced dishes of the Quintana Roo region.

The vanguard of regional Mexican cooking in the U.S. is Rick Bayless, of the famed Frontera Grill, and the more upscale Topolobampo, which opened in 1989. Many credit Bayless and his wife/partner Deann with introducing Americans to "real" Mexican food. Each restaurant’s menu changes every four weeks to take advantage of what Bayless calls "ultra-seasonal" items from local farmers, and for the sake of creativity itself. At press time, a Frontera best-seller was a cazuela appetizer. Served in an earthen-ware dish, it combines roasted duck and morel mushrooms and is served with warm tortillas with which customers can make little tacos. Entrees recently offered include a grilled pork loin in a sauce made from roasted tomatoes and guajilo chilis and an enchilada filled with slow-cooked pork and Mexican red beans, served with roasted zucchini.

At Topolobampo, Bayless recently offered a rabbit loin wrapped in hoja santa, an anise-like herb, served in a stew of rabbit legs, spinach and creamy roasted poblano sauce. Another offering was a dish Bayless discovered on Mexico’s western coast consisting of shrimp balls pan-seared with whole shrimp, served in roasted tomato broth with diced roasted poblano chilis and redskin potatoes.

Casual Chains deliver fun and flavor

The millions of people who visit casual Mexican chain restaurants are looking for one thing: An escape to a place where the climate is warm, the margaritas are plentiful, and the food excites the taste buds. Casual chains like Chi-Chi’s and Don Pablo’s have long proven that providing a little Mexican vacation to people north of the border can be a profitable exercise.

Credited with introducing Mexican food to mainstream America, Chi-Chi’s has been around for 20-plus years. Since then, many competitors–independent operations and chains like Don Pablo’s, El Torrito, Cozymels, Rio Bravo and others–have popped up, providing Chi-Chi’s with the typical challenge of any aging brand–maintaining excitement among consumers faced with more and more choices.

"We’re a mature brand, and we’ve found that guest satisfaction alone isn’t enough to drive visits," says Laurie Katapski, executive v.p., marketing and food and beverage. "Exceeding expectations is the only way we can do it." To do so, the company has spent the last five years re-vamping its restaurants. They’ve abandoned the original "hacienda" decor and replaced it with more of a tropical Mexican vacation theme. So far, 75% of its units have been updated.

The menu’s also changed, offering less "Tex-Mex" and more variety. "Our food is more sophisticated and we’ve responded to customers who want bolder tastes and flavors. Not necessarily spiciness, but more distinctive flavors," explains Katapski. The result? Items like tortilla-crusted chicken fajitas drizzled with chipotle sauce. Or, a Caribbean-influenced grilled garlic shrimp with black beans, yellow rice and corn on the cob.

There’s nothing like a little fire in the dining room to grab a guest’s attention, so in March, Chi-Chi’s debuted a cousin to its sizzling, smoking fajitas that are currently its most popular menu item. With a splash of tequila, Chi-Chi’s new flaming fajitas are set ablaze tableside, an effect that "creates a ‘wow,’" says Katapski.

What about authenticity? "We’ve done a lot of research and it’s not authenticity that matters to our customers. They care about how the food tastes. "It’s about interesting flavors that work together and are distinctive from one another," says the veep. Twenty years ago, she explains, lots of Chi-Chi’s items, from burritos to tacos to enchiladas, had similar tastes. Today, there are sharp contrasts within the same plate. It’s the variety and surprise customers crave.

Like Chi-Chi’s, 131-unit Don Pablo’s offers a mini-vacation, with "Mexican village" decor, outdoor plazas and working fountains. "The casual Mexican category continues to grow year over year," says Sue Morgan, v.p. of marketing. "We’re targeting for fast growth in the grilled category." A year ago, the company launched what would become its best seller, the Primo Combo–grilled chicken and steak, a hard taco and a soft taco. "It worked because it tapped into that magic combination of the right mix of flavors and textures," says Morgan.

She, too, notes that the Mexican casual dining segment has come a long way. "Even 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen items like our white bean chicken chili or fajita pepita salad (romaine lettuce, mesquite grilled steak or chicken, anejo cheese, pumpkin seeds, pico de gallo and cilantro dressing)." And like Chi-Chi’s, authenticity takes a back seat to flavor at Don Pablo’s. "There are so many definitions of ‘authentic,’" Morgan says. "It’s more important to meet guests’ expectations for freshness, quality and taste."

This month, Don Pablo’s is rolling out tamales, including a chicken version with tomatillo sauce, and a pork brisket version with ranchero sauce. Morgan says it’s this type of "sophistication that brings casual Mexican dining to a higher level."

Fast casual chants the freshness mantra

As fast casual continues to be the quickest-growing segment in the restaurant industry, so, too, are the so-called "Fresh Mexican Grills." Despite a glut of emerging Fresh-Mex chains, experts say that there is still plenty of room for growth. The reason? Fast-casual concepts, in this case, places like Chipotle, Baja Fresh, Qdoba, Rubio’s, La Salsa and others, offer high quality, made-to-order foods at prices lower than casual restaurants. Furthermore, they deliver the goods with speed that rivals quick service operations. And, fresh Mexican grills have the added benefit of offering the in-demand flavors of Latin cooking. Average checks are in the $7-8 range.

Operators in this segment say that authenticity takes a back seat to flavor. Chipotle c.e.o. Steve Ells says, "I’ve never tried to make authentic Mexican food, although we use flavors and elements of Mexican cooking. It’s more important to our guest that the food is exciting, not necessarily authentic." Baja Fresh c.e.o. Greg Dollarhyde says, "Authenticity is not the driving factor for the bulk of our customers. What’s important are things like whether the salsa is fresh. They don’t care if the peppers are imported from Sonora." Qdoba c.e.o. Gary Beisler punctuates the thought. "Flavor is everything. Our ‘Mexican’ food is not something a first-generation Mexican would relate to, but we’re not trying to be the authentic place."

Backed by funding from McDonald’s, Chipotle leads the Fresh Mexican Grill segment in total units with 200, 75 of which were added in 2001. Ells likes to believe Chipotle pulls away from the pack with its raw ingredients. Last year, the company replaced the pork used in its Carnitas burritos with a free-range product. "We had to raise the price of the burrito by $1, but we’re selling twice as many," says Ells. Similar upgrades are in the works though the company won’t discuss the specifics. Internally, Chipotle is calling the project "Food With Integrity."

Chipotle’s best seller is the chicken burrito. For spice, the chicken is marinated in chipotle chili adobo sauce, fresh oregano and garlic. Ells has no plans to offer new menu items because orders are fufilled in front of the guest, who directs the action. "Customers experiment and mix and match. They’re not looking for us to give them a new combination."

A similar philosophy reigns at 151-unit Baja Fresh, where c.e.o. Greg Dollarhyde says promotions like new menu items are unnecessary. "We’re not tied to a product introduction model," he says. "We’ve had positive comps for 27 consecutive quarters, and we haven’t needed new products to get there." Dollarhyde says their internal research has shown that success lies in creating products with flavor profiles that keep guests coming back. In Baja Fresh’s own research, customers praise the food for its "full" flavors and "clean" and "fresh" tastes. He adds, "It’s about having a distinctive quality in the mind of the consumer."

"Nouveau Mex" is how Gary Beisler, Qdoba president and c.e.o., describes his restaurants’ offerings. He says while Chipotle has cornered the market on big burritos, Qdoba aims to wow customers with "big flavors." So what’s "nouveau Mex?" It’s contemporary items with Mexican flavors and influences. Things like the cilantro lime rice (also a staple of the Chipotle menu) and a "poblano pesto" sauce made of peppers and pine nuts.

As at Chipotle, the chicken burrito is Qdoba’s best-seller. The three-cheese nachos, tortilla soup and "naked" burrito (served in a bowl, no tortilla) are also popular. New menu items to be rolled out soon borrow from other popular casual dining styles: A Buffalo-style chili and "Mexican egg rolls." Qdoba will also add 28 units this year to its current portfolio of 75.

Beisler says that although fast-casual Mexican appeals to a broad audience, especially younger 20- and 30-something consumers, it was the baby boomers who paved the way for the category. "We grew up on fast food, and we’ve grown tired of it, which has opened the door for something better, like the fast-casual Mexican restaurant."

But what distinguishes our desire for Latin as an enduring trend, and not just a passing fad? Rafael Palomino says, "There is so much to draw from. Colombia has 465 different fruits. Peru has a thousand potatoes. The variety will keep people interested."

Douglas Rodriguez says its about the overall experience. "People want foods with more flavors, but they really want the festive energy Latin restaurants provide. They’ll come back for that, as they will for the food."

But Rick Bayless says it best. "We are becoming quite a Latin country, so this is not a play thing. It’s the food of a whole lot of people we share our country with. And we’re learning the integrity of Latin cultures, from their approach to life–their strong bond with family, that is often times cemented with food. We’re learning that sharing a meal with people not only satisfies our hunger, but our need for community."