November 27, 2023

Regional menu items are hottest foods in America’s melting pot

Nashville Hot chicken and birria stew are just two of the foods exciting consumers and restaurateurs alike.
Chicken Sandwich

Since the first Nashville Hot Chicken restaurant opened, customers have descended in droves to sample the famously spicy dish.

America has always been a melting pot—of ethnicities, cultures, and cuisines. For nearly 250 years, its diverse populations have shared the dishes, flavors and ingredients of the different regions in which they originated, both domestic and international.

It’s why we can find New York- or Chicago-style pizzas in California, Carolina- or Kansas City-style barbecue in Maine, and Wisconsin cheese curds coast to coast. Today, social media exposes everyone to ever more authentic regional foods and flavors, from Nashville Hot chicken to the Finish cheese bread juustoleipa and birria stew. 

The National Restaurant Association’s 2024 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast reports “regional menus” ranked in the overall Top 10 trends for the year and is second in Macro Trends following the top-ranked “incorporating social media trends.” 

The national survey asked 1,500 culinary professionals to rank 120 items in seven categories, dishes, ingredients, flavors, condiments, beverages, alcohol beverages, and macro trends, that are drawing consumer attention and will continue to into next year and beyond.

New flavors and social media’s influence

Social media is playing a big part in consumers’ awareness of regional foods. The fun, they say, is not just in adopting the originals, but rather finding tastier, more creative and buzz-worthy presentations of those regional stars. Chefs are looking to regional standouts for inspiration and finding ways to make them their own. 

“Consumers are craving comfort and community, with a healthy side of curiosity influenced by social media,” said Hudson Riehle, the Association’s senior vice president of Research. “Old favorites, like barbecue, are taking on new flavor profiles, while customers’ sharing of information and experiences over social media influences the reach of regional powerhouse menu items, such as Nashville Hot. Restaurant guests are excited to experience the foods they’re familiar with presented in new ways.”

Nashville Hot Chicken in particular is attracting attention regionally and nationally. Legend has it that about 100 years ago, the girlfriend of Thornton Prince cooked him some fried chicken, but added a healthy dose of cayenne pepper to it to burn him for his unfaithfulness. Instead of punishing him, Prince loved it, and opened BBQ Chicken Shack, the first Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich shop. Since then, customers have descended in droves to sample the famously spicy dish, making it one of the city’s most famous menu items. 

Today Hot Chicken is showing up on national menus. In September, IHOP launched its Nashville Hot Chicken & Waffles, featuring a Belgian waffle topped with four crispy chicken strips tossed in Nashville Hot sauce and served with ranch dressing.

“The Nashville Hot Chicken & Waffles menu item is part of our strategy of focusing on quality, two sides of cravings–sweet and savory—plus choice and value,” says Chef Arthur Carl II, IHOP’s VP of Culinary, “and this dish meets those attributes. 

Carl adds that IHOP is committed to keeping a pulse on industry trends.

“We know expansion in our core menu and through LTOs is important, and that regional flavors are integral to our menu innovation,” he says. “My team and I are constantly inspired to create new dishes, reimagine classic IHOP staples, and revive favorites across all dayparts on both a national and regional scale.”

Birria stew is another versatile regional dish making its way onto menus. The stew, which originated in Jalisco, Mexico, starts with meat slow cooked, and ultimately served in its braising liquid along with various herbs, spices, vinegar, tomato, dried and toasted red chilies, garlic, onion and more depending on the recipe. And the recipes are as myriad as are the menu variations; birria stew is showing up in tacos, sandwiches, over pasta and topping poutine.

Menu trends expert Nancy Kruse notes that the breakout of regional foods from their traditional geographic markets is because of two big factors.

“Along with their basic patron appeal, they offer restaurants an opportunity to go outside a specific region to add an item to the menu that’s new to the area but consumer-tested,” she says. “It also provides those restaurants with a nice promotional, menu-marketing hook.”
What’s Hot 2024 Culinary Forecast
2024 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast
November 14, 2023