Updated Apr 15, 2023 - Economy

Latin and Tex-Mex overtake Italian as America's go-to food order

Illustration of the Earth wearing a chef's hat.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The go-to favorite cuisine of Americans used to be Italian, but increasingly it's Latin American and Tex-Mex food like tacos, quesadillas and birrias — with Asian food next on the horizon, per Datassential, a restaurant-menu consultancy.

Why it matters: The dramatic rise in the U.S. Latino population is reshaping the national palate — and sending restaurant operators south of the border (or thereabouts) to freshen up their menus.

Driving the news: An analysis of the 4,500 new menu items released at major restaurant chains last year found that Americans are craving cheesy, spicy foods with Latin-inspired ingredients and preparations.

  • The 10 fastest-growing items on U.S. menus include birria (a Mexican meat stew), chicken taco salad, and dishes made with Tajín, a seasoning of chile peppers, lime and sea salt.
  • The #1 menu addition? Ranch Water, a summery cocktail of tequila, lime and Topo Chico sparkling water, per Datassential.
  • Tequila is poised to overtake vodka as the country's top-selling spirit, while margaritas have become the most popular cocktail.

What they're saying: "When we work with [restaurant] clients, if they're going to ask about what flavors to put on the menu, it's probably going to be Latin," says Mike Kostyo, the "trendologist" at Datassential who analyzed 2022's menus.

  • "And if it's not that, it's probably going to be Asian."

The big picture: For the longest time, Italian food was America's favorite — bring on the pizza and pasta!

  • Then came the millennials, "the first generation to actually prefer Mexican cuisine over Italian cuisine," Kostyo says.
  • Now comes Gen Z, "the first generation to prefer both Mexican and Chinese cuisine over Italian cuisine."
  • "Previously, you had spaghetti or pizza on the menu as go-to comfort food. Now you're probably going to put a taco on the menu," Kostyo tells Axios.

Where it stands: Demographic changes — which translate to shifts in childhood favorites and adult preferences — are reflected in our evolving appetites.

  • "Look at college campuses today," Kostyo says. In the food court, "there's going to be an Asian bowl; there's probably going to be a taco and a burrito."
  • "The things that young people are growing up with as the norm are so different from 20-30 years ago."

How it works: Datassential maintains a database of 40,000 food and drink items at big restaurant chains, and asks consumers to rate the new additions based on the menu description, picture and price.

  • Consumers score the dishes in categories like "uniqueness" and whether they would order them.
  • Restaurateurs use the scores to "concept test" new dishes or revamp tired offerings.

🌮 What we like: The dishes ranking highest in consumer appeal in 2022 included a number of "limited time offers" (LTOs, in industry parlance), such as the Barbacoa Quesadilla Benedict from breakfast/lunch chain First Watch and the Orange Chicken Sandwich Bao from Panda Express. (Read Datassential's report.)

  • Cheese was the #1 ingredient added to new menu items last year.
  • "Fresh" was the most popular menu descriptor, ahead of "delicious," "real," "rich" and "housemade."

Weirdness works: There's heightened demand for oddball flavor combinations and sweet-and-salty mashups, driven in part by younger consumers seeking novelty.

  • Ghost peppers are all the rage — jalapeños are now considered a bit of a yawn.
  • The apotheosis of the trends? Baskin-Robbins' "Spicy 'n Spooky" ice cream — a limited-time flavor made with ghost pepper, white and dark chocolate, and blood orange flakes, and released before Halloween.

📈 On the rise: The top-growing term on menus in the past four years: "keto."

📉 On the decline: The word "calorie" dropped 37% on menus in the past year — as did "free refills." 😢

Of note: 17 Latino chefs are finalists for the James Beard Chef and Restaurant awards this year, a sign of increasing openness to diverse cuisines among culinary gatekeepers, as Axios Latino reports.

The bottom line: The Latin and Tex-Mex food boom is everywhere you look — and, given that such dishes produce high profit margins for restaurants, very likely to stick around.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 14.

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