February 28th, 2014

Regional Asian Food: The Future of the QSR?

Posted in New Foods and Flavors, Restaurants, Trends

Asian food, and specifically Chinese food, has been popular in the US for decades now. Most times the menu is an amalgamation of Asian and American cuisines and is far from authentic. The trend towards Westernized Chinese food, for example, saw its rise in the 1800s when Chinese immigrants came to the US for work. From there, an adaptation to the palate of the typical American resulted in a cuisine that was a departure from the cuisine seen on mainland China.

Technomic 2014 trends allude to a shift in this longstanding tradition of takeout boxes filled with lo Mein or sweet and sour pork. Think more authentic, more regional and more importantly: more flavor.

The challenge in this segment is severe underrepresentation. In NRN’s 2013 Top 100, Panda Express and PF Chang’s are the only Asian chains to make a showing. With the explosion in popularity of Thai and Korean cuisine, and the diversity of regional Chinese food, we are sure to see more and more Asian concepts pop-up in the quick service and fast casual segments.

Keeping the push towards authenticity and flavor, here are some of the more interesting chains in the Asian Segment:

Mixed Menus:

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen: a concept from the folks at Chipotle that opened in 2011. So far, there are only 2 stores, one in Bethesda, MD, and one in Los Angeles, CA. It follows the model for its big sister. You can choose your starch, protein, veggies, sauces, and garnishes as you walk down the line.

Wow Bao: showcasing authentic buns and pot stickers, as well as pad Thai and Thai curry, this small chain in Chicago (6 locations) started out as a brick and mortar. They recently added a food truck that Mobile Cuisine dubbed “one of the most influential food trucks of 2013”.

www.wowbao.com

Mama Fu’s: an Austin-based chain that recently signed an expansion agreement to have up to 25 location across the country. Franchising agreements have been signed for a total of 68 stores. A fast casual restaurant during the day, the restaurant changes to a sit-down format at night. A secret menu intended for members of the loyalty program resurfaced last year. Menus items range from crab rangoons, and lettuce wraps, to Bangkok green curry, and Pho rice noodle soup.

www.mamafus.com

Korean:

Tous Les Jours: a French-Asian bakery chain that originated in Korea with 26 locations in the US. Authentic bakery products include pink milk bread (strawberry infused), sweet rice donuts, and milk pan bread.

http://tljus.com/

Sorabol Korean BBQ & Asian Noodles: the first Korean chain restaurant in the US, run by the Sorabol family. The food is authentic Korean: think Kal-bi, Bul Gogi, Dak Gui, vegetable pancakes, and Chap Chae. They own 13 locations in California.

http://www.sorabolrestaurants.com/

Chinese:

Cantonese:

Ping Pong Dim Sum: with bursting soup dumplings, soft shell crab tempura, crispy prawn balls, and sesame donuts, the menu varies slightly between the Washington D.C. location and the Dubai and Mumbai locations. With 12 locations total, including 8 in London, this is a unique chain to watch.

www.pingpongdimsum.us

Shaanxi:

Xi’an Famous Foods: this small chain of 7 restaurants in New York features the cuisine of the Shaanxi province in Northwest China. The predominant protein here is lamb. Noodles are hand-pulled on site. Cold-Skin noodles is another common dish that doesn’t contain any meat. The noodles are prepared by washing wet wheat dough in cold water until it is gray and cloudy. The starch is allowed to settle then cut into strips and steamed for several minutes.

http://xianfoods.com/

Japanese:

How Do You Roll?: one of the first fast casual sushi franchises in the US, they just recently inked 11 deals to develop 286 stores in the US over the next 10 years. Expect 40 more units throughout the Middle East as part of an international deal with development starting in Bahrain and the UAE this year.

http://howdoyouroll.com/

Filipino:

Jollibee: with 29 units in the United States, and 750 worldwide, Jollibee is a chain that offers Filipino favorites such as spaghetti with ham, sausage, beef and tomato sauce; Spam platters, burgers, fried chicken, and Halo Halo for dessert.

http://www.jollibeeusa.com

Max’s of Manila: an authentic Filipino restaurant with 9 stateside locations, expect specialties such as lumpia eggrolls, milkfish, sinangang (tamarind soup), adobo, and pancit noodles.

www.maxschicken.com

Red Ribbon Bakery: started in Timog, Quezon City, Philippines in 1979, the company is now owned by Jolibee Foods Corporation (acquired in 2005) and has a total of 38 US locations, as well as 200 stores in the Philippines. A wide variety of sweet treats, including ube (purple sweet potato) cake, pan de sel, ensaimada (cheese pastry), are complemented by such savory items as siopao (pork bun) and dinuguan (savory pork stew).

http://www.redribbonbakeshop.us/

Thai:

Osha Thai: a moderately priced concept with 5 locations in San Francisco, they offer tasty dishes such as larb lettuce wraps, Panang curry, papaya salad, and clay pot dishes.

http://www.oshathai.com/

Spice Thai: at 10-unit chain in New York, enjoy a tasting of curry puffs, vegetarian mock dock, Thai spare ribs, and tamarind whole fish. A very extensive menu with a reasonable price.

http://www.spicethainyc.com/spice/home/index.html

Indian:

Hot Breads: we are all familiar with the curries of India. But Hot Breads moves beyond the typical Indian restaurant by showcasing cuisines from several different regions in India. Expect dosa (a thin crepe-like pancake) and vada pav (spicy potato cake sandwich) from the Southern region of Andhra; khorma from Uttar Pradesh in the North; or try a badam shake (a yogurt shake made with ground almonds and cardamom powder). Also known for their specialty cakes and pastries (including egg-less varieties), they are the only QSR Indian chain in the US. We are lucky to have one of these in Austin, and it’s one of my favorite “fast food” places to eat!

http://www.hotbreadsusa.com/home.html

February 17th, 2014

Austin Restaurant of the Month: Xian Sushi and Noodle

Posted in About Allison

One of the biggest trends according to Technomic 2014 is “convince me it’s real” which is to say that authentic ingredients and authentic techniques matter.  If I come to your establishment for genuine Chinese food, I expect the real deal. I expect fresh, flavorful food.

I was excited to hear about the very recent opening of Xian Sushi and Noodle in the new Mueller complex in Austin. Reviews on Eater Austin were quickly touting the noodles at Xian Sushi and Noodle as the best thing on the menu.

While several restaurants in Austin serve hand-cut noodles, namely Chen’s Noodle House and Shabu, no one is making hand-pulled noodles except for a small downtown trailer called Julie’s Handmade Noodles.  Excited to try the noodles at Xian, I stopped over on my lunch hour to give them a try.

The menu is laid out with soup and salad, appetizers, hand-pulled noodles, snacks, cold appetizers, sushi entrees, signature rolls and lunch specials. Since the focus of my trip here was to try the noodles, I decided to stay away the sushi side of the menu and focus on the more traditional Chinese items.

For my starter, I selected gyoza dumplings.  I have a confession: I am a gyoza snob. I lived in Japan for 3 years and we ate them constantly. We went to a place that we called “The Boar” (because it had a stuffed boar in the window) and we couldn’t read Kanji. But we loved that place, especially the green gyoza that we ordered every time we went there. So imagine my delight, when the dumplings came out. I was instantly transported back to that little gyoza shop in Fussa-City!  And I hace to say, I wasn’t disappointed. This simple dish had tender pork and edamame wrapped in the dumpling skins and simply pan fried and steamed (just the way I like them).  They were served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.

Next up on the menu: spicy shredded potatoes (Suan la tu dou si). Our server described the dish as slightly crunchy potatoes in a chile oil and garlic dressing. This is a traditional Chinese potato dish.

I am in love! No, seriously, I am an Irish girl through and through and potatoes just happen to be my favorite vegetable of all time. The texture of this potato dish is unlike any other potato dish I have ever had. They are crunchy, but not starchy.  The flavors of garlic, chile oil and vinegar, are the perfect foil to this potato, red pepper, and cilantro dish. It is served cool, but not cold, and I could not stop eating it.  It’s a true revelation to taste a vegetable you are so fond of, in a totally new way.

For my next taste, it was the pork buns. Served on freshly steamed lotus buns with scallion, cucumber, and hoisin sauce, the chashu pork belly was super tender and flavorful, cooked perfectly. This was my dining mate’s favorite dish so far, but he happens to be more than a little partial to anything served in a Chinese steamed bun!

But the best was yet to come: red-braised pork with hand-pulled noodles. You can choose from 6 different varieties of noodles: vermicelli, spaghetti, thick spaghetti, fettucine, pappardelle, and triangle. According to the server, Cecelia, the pappardelle is the best pairing with the braised beef.

In a rather untraditional twist, the noodles come with scissors so you can trim exactly how many noodles you want in your bowl. The broth was rich and savory and the meat fall apart tender. Braised baby bok choy and potatoes, pickled turnips and cilantro round out this bowl full of comfort.

I left Xian Sushi and Noodle a very happy and satisfied customer, but not before I took this interesting video of Ting, the resident noodle maker at Xian, who was gracious enough to let me film him making noodles:

He was very gracious, and very proud of the store. He told me that he had always wanted to learn how to hand-pull noodles, so it looks like his dream came true! I learned more from Cecilia: namely that the store is family owned/staffed and the family owns a second store: Momiji, a Sushi-Hibachi Grill in North Austin). You can tell from how she talks about the restaurant and the family, that she really enjoys her work there.

http://www.xianfresh.com

I have to say I am pretty excited about this restaurant. It could very well become a date night destination for the hubby and me. It’s affordable, and the food is really good, so what’s not to love? An update on the website shows several new additions to the website including a Shoyu Ramen dish with pork belly and soy sauce eggs. You just wait Xian Sushi and Noodle! We are coming for you!