Chef specials showcase Thai and Vietnamese cuisines.
From banh mi sandwiches to pho and other noodle-based eats, Southeast Asian food has gained steam as a trend over the past couple years, led by renewed interest in Thai, Malaysian, and Vietnamese cuisines. Last year, Pei Wei Asian Diner launched its quick-serve Asian Market and this year, introduced a full, Southeast Asian menu at its diner locations. Sriracha has become a common household condiment and a go-to among chefs. And ingredients like galangal, shrimp paste, and Vietnamese herbs are becoming easier and easier to source.
“Thai cuisine is definitely a trend as consumers generally become more aware of global cuisines and the world becomes a smaller place,” says Mary Chapman, director of research for Chicago-based foodservice research firm Technomic.. “People are discovering a lot more about Southeast Asian cuisine in general. Back in 2000, restaurants and foodservice companies had a tendency to group Asian cuisine into one big bucket, but now we are seeing a lot of micro-trends and a stronger focus on regionality. Just as more consumers understand the difference between Szechwan versus Mandarin Chinese cuisine, they understand the flavor differences and subtle nuances between Thai and Vietnamese dishes.”
At the full-service level, chefs have taken note. According to Euromonitor International, Asian foods have become so popular among single-location restaurants that among those offering specialty menus, Asian cuisine—at 19.7 percent—beat out other popular foods like traditional “American” barbecue and pizza (12.1 percent), European (9.7 percent), Latin American (7.6 percent), and Middle Eastern (1.3 percent).
Chapman notes the tendency for many restaurants to introduce Southeast Asian foods and flavors as part of a broader, pan-Asian focus that also includes Chinese and Japanese-inspired dishes. “Southeast Asian cuisine is part of an overall appreciation of and desire for new global flavors and ethnic twists on familiar items,” she says. “I’m also not surprised to see Southeast Asian cuisines gaining traction because they suit other trends like healthy and flexitarian eating.” The idea is that those who like Thai have discovered a new appreciation for Vietnamese cuisine, and vice versa.