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Exotic tastes, familiar brands

Ethnic cuisine -- Asian and Mexican foods, especially -- have become sizzling segments in the corporate restaurant world, attracting Wall Street wallets along with Main Street mouths. The age of the ethnic chain has arrived.

Browsed a Cheesecake Factory menu lately? Maybe the Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls tempted you.

As Binh Nguyen tells it, diners at his Pho Hoa chain of Vietnamese restaurants have been ordering "summer rolls" -- a rough translation of goi cuon, which are shrimp, pork and vermicelli noodles wrapped in rice paper -- for the past 15 years. "We were the first one to use that name," he says.

Call them what you like: goi cuon and many other traditional ethnic foods have become staples on menus nationwide, a sign that the American palate craves more variety than ever.

Ethnic cuisine is familiar to Americans. It used to imply a special night out at a local, often immigrant-run, mom-and-pop restaurant. Even Italian was once a cultural experience.

But now, ethnic chains permeate the landscape. Asian and Mexican cuisine, especially, have become sizzling segments in the corporate restaurant world.

In 2003, large ethnic restaurant chains -- led by P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and a handful of Mexican establishments -- rang up $4.3 billion in sales. That's up from $2.5 billion in 1998, according to the research firm Mintel.

Two factors are at work.  First, demographics: In 2000, 4.2 percent of Americans were of Asian lineage, up from 2.7 percent a decade earlier -- including over 1.8 million Indians and 1.2 million Vietnamese, both groups that at least doubled since 1990. Among Hispanics, Mexicans alone jumped to 7.3 percent from 5.4 percent in the same period.

Second, Americans have demonstrated more diverse palates than ever, while simultaneously being drawn to familiar, brand-driven restaurants.  Some 3.5 percent of fast-food meals are Mexican and 2.3 percent are Asian, nearly double from 1989, according to the NPD Group, which tracks U.S. eating trends.  And more than one in five of all meals in this country are prepared by a restaurant.

"Americans are always exploring with their diet, looking for new flavors of existing things and looking for different things to try," says NPD vice president Harry Balzer. "It's just who we are."

Finding the right mixConsider P.F. Chang's, the undisputed leader among Asian chains. Its largely authentic, if not adventuresome menu mixes lo mein beef and kung pao chicken with hybrid casual-dining dishes like wild sockeye salmon salad.

Chang's true innovation, CEO Rick Federico said, was to move Chinese fare from the local neon-and-lacquer pagoda to a family-friendly venue with well-honed service standards. The next step was to add casual-dining staples: a wine list, coffee service and desserts like the massive, 1,900-calorie Great Wall of Chocolate, which derives little besides its name from the Far East.

"We didn't think we could teach people how or what to eat," Federico said. Chinese was not a secret. People had been eating it for years."

The formula worked.  With $670 million in sales annually, P.F. Chang's 114 locations each welcome some 850 guests every night, with a $22 average tab.

But as Federico notes, Chinese food wasn't exactly new.  And as recently as the mid-1990s, Olive Garden owner Darden Corp. failed with its China Coast chain. Sometimes it's a matter of getting the right mix of customers through the door -- in P.F. Chang's case, a core of educated, affluent middle-class families.

When Pho Hoa, franchised by Nguyen's Aureflam Corp., began to expand in the late 1980s, it hand-picked locales with large Vietnamese populations.  Now, with 90 stores throughout the United States, Canada and Asia, Pho Hoa's clientele are about half Vietnamese.  Each location averages between $700,000 and $1 million in annual sales.

But Pho Hoa managers still face a delicate balance: drawing new customers without driving away its ethnic core. So menus contain photos and detailed descriptions to help explain pho -- the traditional soup made from beef broth, beef and vermicelli -- to newbies. And a beginners' section is tucked next to "The Adventurer's Choice," where die-hards can order up their beloved beef tendon and tripe.

"We don't want to emphasize that it's Vietnamese, but just a good, healthy noodle soup," Nguyen says.

Other restauranteurs see their menus as a quick gastronomic adventure for an ever more diverse populace -- with convenience as the main dish. None are even a fraction as large as a chain like Taco Bell, but they're growing. Franchises like L&L Hawaiian Barbecue have carried their original menu of lunch plates (staples like ground beef with fried eggs, plus rice and macaroni salad) all the way to New York City. 

The growing Mexican population, paired with Americans' desire to expand past the taco-burrito boundary, has allowed Mexican chains like California's El Torito to add items like Sonoran empanaditas and carnitas Michoacán to their menus.

'Friends who'd never had garlic'In St. Louis, restauranteur Harinder Singh expanded his India's Rasoi sit-down locations with two cafeteria-style Curry In a Hurry shops. Since most Indian dishes are time-intensive, Singh emulated successful Chinese food-court anchors like Panda Express: His shops prepare dishes in advance and serve them up combo-style. In just three hours a day, his downtown lunch-only location clears $300,000 annually.

"I grew up in St. Louis, and I had friends who'd never had garlic in their life," Singh says. "If we have a concept that can fly in a conservative town like St. Louis, we feel that any of these concepts could do well in other cities."

Singh expanded by buying a local Italian food company, bolstering the product line with ready-to-eat Indian dishes like chicken tikka masala and lamb korma. The new venture will service both his own restaurants and food-service outlets like corporate cafeterias, to say nothing of supermarket shelves.

All of which signals that samosas and curries have entered the mainstream, as they did in England long ago. Within five years, Singh predicts, "you will see something comparble to P.F. Chang's, the Indian version."

In a way, that's already happened. Well-known casual chains have adopted what Balzer calls "variations on existing themes": new spices and presentations for American staples like chicken breasts and noodles.

Look no further than Cheesecake Factory's chicken chipotle pasta.  Or teriyaki bowls and tortilla soup at Red Robin's 250-plus locations. Or California Pizza Kitchen's Thai chicken pie. And Outback Steakhouse recently paired with P.F. Chang's co-founder Paul Fleming to open Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen, a mid-scale take on the P.F. Chang's formula.

At the same time, casual Mexican chains are gaining on Italian. On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, the category leader built by Chili's owned Brinker International, averages $2.9 million in annual sales at each of 131 locations.

A hybrid optionBut "fast casual" restaurants -- the grey zone between Taco Bell and white tablecloths -- may be the real winners. Mexican is a big winner here too, helped by some deep-pocketed parents: Baja Fresh (Wendy's), Chipotle (McDonald's) and Qdoba Mexican Grill (Jack In The Box).

Asian's sizzling, too. Nguyen's shops can serve a hot bowl of pho within five minutes. Chains like Big Bowl Asian Kitchen and Mama Fu's Asian House entice on-the-go eaters.

Mama Fu's, owned by Atlanta's Raving Brands, is growing this year from 23 mostly East Coast locations to a projected 40 nationwide.

For Mama Fu's, Raving Brands invoked its expertise with casual brands like Moe's Southwest Grille and Planet Smoothie. The concept: fast, easy food with exotic flavors in dishes that skirt even nervous diners' ick factors, whisked to your table as '80s hits like Murray Head's "One Night in Bangkok" throb in the background.

Obviously, authenticity isn't the goal. Raving executive vice president Darin Kraesch considers Fu's menu of Thai coconut soup and beef curry rolls "a greatest-hits album" of Asian dishes.  Even the name telegraphs its hybrid nature: a splash of Szechuan and a dash of Dixie.

"It's not a traditional, Golden Buddha, fire-breathing dragon environment," Kraesch says. "We're trying to give them a little bit of both worlds."

After many of P.F. Chang's outlets were swamped with takeout business, to the point dedicated staff and phone lines were needed, the company decided to branch out.  Its Pei Wei Asian Diner, now in 55 locations throughout the Southwest, serves takeout customers and those who want Chang's-style grub without the wait.

And the food? Lovers of authentic Chinese might grumble.  But traditional or not, most patrons probably are fine with the fact that Chang's lettuce wraps are filled with chicken.

"We didn't think pigeon would work in the United States," Says Federico.