Rising popularity of Mexican cuisine helps diners discover its diversity

Mexican foods and flavors are showing up on more menus in the US, and this increased exposure is helping more consumers discover how varied the country’s cuisine can be. A few decades ago, Mexican cuisine in the US largely consisted of inauthentic Tex-Mex dishes made with packaged salsas and a heavy dose of cheese. Today, eateries across the US are highlighting dishes and ingredients from Mexico that satisfy diners’ growing curiosity about Mexican food.

The fastest growing Mexican entree on US menus is chilaquiles, which appear on 24% more menus now than they did  four years ago, according to research by Datassential. Tortas and tacos are also on the rise, with menu mentions over the past four years up 19% and 16%, respectively. Tacos and other street foods are especially appealing to restaurant operators because they offer a combination of authenticity and approachability.

According to Datassential MenuTrends, the word "street" has increased nearly 40% on menus over the past four years. One Mexican street food classic that has strong potential for growth is elote, also referred to as Mexican-style street corn. Consisting of a grilled ear of corn topped with cotija cheese, chili, lime, mayonnaise and cilantro, elote “is a natural side dish or appetizer at Mexican operators, but is starting to [grow] outside of ethnic restaurants,” Datassential wrote in its March 2017 On the Menu report. Elote only appears on 1% of US menus, but 24% of consumers have tried it and 45% say they are interested in it, according to the report.

While elote and tacos are growing rapidly, the scope of modern Mexican cuisine extends far beyond street food. The US is home to several Mexican fine dining concepts helmed by award-winning chefs. From Gabriela Cámara’s Cala in San Francisco to Rick Bayless’ group of Chicago restaurants that includes Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, these contemporary Mexican concepts offer both authentic dishes and inventive, forward-thinking creations rooted in Mexican foodways.

Cosme, the New York Mexican restaurant from Enrique Olvera and chef de cuisine Daniela Soto-Innes, made the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for the first time this year, ranking 40th on the list. The restaurant, which will expand with a location opening in Los Angeles in 2018, has received accolades for its modern take on Mexican cuisine, featuring dishes such as a broccoli tamal with goat ricotta and wasabi, and a dessert of corn husk meringue served with corn mousse.

Cosme is one of a growing number of US Mexican restaurants raising the profile of Mexican heritage corn by importing corn from Mexican farms and using it to make fresh masa in-house. Inspired by a conversation he had with Olvera at the G9 Chefs Summit at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, chef and entrepreneur Jorge Gaviria founded Masienda in 2014 to help make Mexican heirloom corn available to more US restaurants. The company now supplies corn to more than 150 restaurants across the US, and the chefs who work with it are passionate about the corn’s superior flavor compared with pre-ground corn flour made from commodity corn. Chef Alexis Samayoa of Espita Mezcaleria in Washington, D.C., described the difference between making tortillas with packaged maseca and making them with Mexican corn as “like [going from] driving a Honda to a Ferrari. It’s really night and day.”

As the cachet of Mexican heritage corn grows, more restaurants are likely to source their corn from Mexico and invest in their tortilla programs. This shift could result in a restaurant landscape where freshly made tortillas are the norm, rather than the exception.

Another trend that the future may hold for Mexican cuisine in the US is insects. “Bug season” is a popular foodie occasion in Mexico, and high-end restaurants there are increasingly featuring insects on their menus, Maya Kroth wrote in a recent story for Saveur. Some US Mexican eateries, such as Jose Andres’ Oyamel in Washington, D.C., already offer tacos de chapulines made with grasshoppers. Startups touting the sustainability and nutritional benefits of insects have been attracting attention and funding in the US, so it may not be long before bugs make their way to more US Mexican menus.

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