Omar D’Angelo smelled opportunity in the scent of frying empanadas. “The Mexican restaurants were growing, but there was not much diversity beyond that. In business you always want to do something unique and different, and as an Argentine person I knew I could bring something new,” he says.
His Argentine food truck, Barroluco Argentine Comfort Food, hit the streets of Columbus, Ohio, in 2016 and has drawn a steady following for its empanadas (little meat pies) and its chimichurri (a kind of garlic pesto).
Whether he realized it or not, D’Angelo had tapped into a growing trend. In recent years, the U.S. has seen a rise not just in the number of Mexican restaurants, but also in the sheer diversity of Latino-inspired culinary options.
There were some 48,000 Mexican eateries nationwide in 2018, according to el Restaurante’s Independent Mexican Restaurant Report, which tracks Mexican and Latin food trends through surveys and restaurant data. That’s up 1,500 from the year before. Taco trucks are on the rise too, with 8,061 mobile Mexican eateries on the road in the U.S. this year, up from 5,500 in 2016.
The Latino trend extends beyond the usual tacos and burritos.
“One of the hottest cuisines right now is Peruvian, with growth in casual dining, upscale dining and fine dining. Brazilian is seeing growth. El Salvadoran is becoming more popular,” says Charles Chuman, vice president of sales for culinary research firm CHD Expert.
Why the boom? It’s partly due to a rising number of Americans who hail from Latin America. Cities with large immigrant populations are seeing the fastest growth in dining options. “People in cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles are really open to new flavors and new tastes,” Chuman says.
At the same time, staple Mexican items have become so commonplace that they no longer seem exotic. It’s strange to think of ballpark nachos as “ethnic” food. That opens the door for curious diners to experiment.
Public curiosity helped D’Angelo get his truck rolling. “At first we had to explain everything,” he says. “Now people want us to succeed because they have come to like these flavors.”
It’s not just independent operators like D’Angelo who capitalize on rising interest. With more than 100 locations nationwide, burger chain BurgerFi this summer launched The Street Stack, a limited-time offering that sandwiches a beef patty between two arepas (griddle corn cakes) and tops it with charred jalapeño pico de gallo.
“We wanted to create a new twist on a classic street food item that is synonymous with fun, summer and festivals,” says Paul Griffin, BurgerFi’s culinary director. “Although arepas are considered a South American staple, sweet corn is widely loved by the masses, so we decided to have them act as our burger buns.”
The quest for novel flavors isn’t confined to lunch or dinner. Research firm Packaged Facts finds Mexican breakfast items have become twice as common on U.S. menus in the past decade: tasty dishes like migas (pan-fried corn tortillas, scrambled eggs, salsas, meats, and beans) and chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips softened in salsa, topped with poached eggs, cilantro, onions, crema and queso fresco).
These morning edibles “target not just Hispanics, but all the ravenous millennials looking for what’s next,” the researchers note. As restaurants expand their menus to embrace other Latino flavors, their buying habits change, according to Dining Alliance, a group purchasing organization serving 18,000 restaurants. Its members saw purchases of staples such as refried beans, plantains, chipotle peppers and cilantro jump almost 35 percent from 2017 to 2018.
Until recently, restaurateurs might have had a challenging time securing these ingredients. Today, ready availability of Latino staples means consumers get to enjoy new menu choices.
“Systems have changed such that distributors are now able to bring in a broader variety of foods because of improvements in the supply chain and distribution technologies,” Chuman says. As a result, “we are seeing a greater variety of products reaching a bigger audience.”
For D’Angelo, who came from Argentina to the U.S. with his family in 2000, a mobile dining venue offers the ideal means for introducing hungry neighbors to the flavors of his native land. “The food truck helps by spreading the interest,” he says. “Being mobile, we can take these different flavors to people in lots of different places. We find that people are always interested in trying something new.”
D’Angelo has been able to build upon that interest. In November, he leveraged the success of the food truck to fulfill a longtime dream, opening the 50-seat restaurant Barrolocu. “I had always wanted to open a restaurant, but it was very expensive and difficult at first,” he says. “Once we had some success with the food truck, the lenders had more confidence in me. Now we have a lunch rush from the nearby office spaces, so there is a steady business here, giving people something different from what they can usually find in Columbus.”