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:
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!