Street foods, cajeta, upscale Mexican concepts will drive continued growth of Latin cuisine in US

Latin American foods and flavors were among the top trends of 2016, and the cuisines of Mexico and Central and South America will continue to influence US chefs and food companies in the coming year, experts say. Latin American flavors were No. 5 in the Global Flavors category of the National Restaurant Association's 2017 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, which analyzed survey results from nearly 1,300 professional chefs. Latin flavors also feature in the two of the report’s top overall trends: street food-inspired dishes and ethnic-inspired breakfast items, which weighed in at No. 2 and No. 6, respectively.

While culinary inspiration continues to pour into the US from Mexico, we will see chefs utilizing ingredients and flavors from a broader range of Latin American countries in 2017. “Operators are always on the lookout for next-level Latin American flavors in order to stand out, so we'll see more flavors and ingredients from countries like Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil in 2017,” said Datassential’s Senior Publications Manager Mike Kostyo. “Flavors like chimichurri, Peruvian aji peppers, and Venezuelan arepas are all steadily growing on menus,” he said.

Rising consumer interest in Cuba sparked by improved relations between the country and the US will likely lead to an uptick in Cuban flavors on menus in the coming year, Kotsyo said. Mojo sauce and Cuban sandwiches are already popping up on more menus, as are Cuban-inspired coffee drinks like the Havana Cappuccino offered by Peet's Coffee.

Breakfast tacos, street foods offer Latin flavors to-go

Global flavors are expected to take off in the morning daypart next year, and breakfast tacos will be a top seller, consulting company Baum+Whiteman predicted in its 2017 trend report. In addition to their growing presence on the breakfast menu, tacos will continue to be popular during the p.m. hours thanks to the street food trend.

“Consumers will certainly see flavors like elote and other Mexican street foods continue to grow, while the cinnamon-sugar flavor of churros will find its way onto even more menus,” Kostyo said.

Chefs feature Latin cuisine in upscale settings

While experts predict street food and grab-and-go breakfast items will proliferate on casual menus, Latin American cuisine will also continue to evolve in fine dining restaurants. By and large, Mexican and Mexican-American chefs are leading the charge for this new type of upscale Latin American fare, food consultant Kara Nielsen said.

“[These chefs] are dimensionalizing our notions of Mexican cuisine,” she said. “What we’re seeing are these chefs who use the same fine dining culinary practices as other chefs but also bring in some of the traditional Mexican ingredients and ways of doing things.”

Among the restaurants exhibiting this type of modern Mexican cuisine are New York’s Cosme, Cala in San Francisco and Taco Maria in Costa Mesa, Calif. "[California] just so happens to be occupied by many, many different cultures and races and nationalities, but the history is so profoundly Mexican that I think it's a naturally emerging inspiration,” Taco Maria chef and owner Carlos Salgado said in a recent Los Angeles Times story.

Cajeta brings complex sweetness to desserts

Of the Latin American flavors and ingredients expected to gain popularity in 2017, one of the most buzzed-about is cajeta. The sweet, tangy caramel is a variation on dulce de leche, and some restaurants may use the terms interchangeably, although dulce de leche is made from cow’s milk and cajeta uses goat’s milk, Nielsen said.

“While dulce de leche acts as a next-level replacement for caramel, cajeta can be a next-level replacement for dulce de leche for those chefs or manufacturers who want to be even more trend-forward,” Kostyo said. “Cajeta has that same sweet, rich flavor profile as caramel or dulce de leche, but with that added tanginess from the goat milk that makes it more ‘adult’ and sophisticated. Look for it anywhere caramel shows up -- in desserts like cookies and brownies, on flan, as a dipping sauce for churros, drizzled over ice cream, or mixed into beverages.”

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