In 2008, Los Angeles chef Roy Choi’s roving taco truck, Kogi, ushered in a new era in which $2 tacos filled with Korean BBQ attracted crowds by the thousands. The concept was simple: traditional Korean flavours stuffed into a corn tortilla. It was a grand-slam home run.
That surge marked a reinvention of fusion cooking—and not just in Los Angeles, or even the U.S., for that matter. The focus is on flavour, the attitude is casual and playful, and the dishes have mass-market appeal. There’s a mind-boggling array of drop-dead delicious mashup dishes—from cheese-curd ramen to chop-suey croquettes—that are reinvigorating today’s menus.
Tacos offer a huge opportunity for creative mashups. East meets west in the El Clandestino Taco stuffed with smoked meat, smoked mustard crema, mirin, green Tabasco, pineapple and slaw at Montreal’s Escondite. At the Sidedoor in Ottawa, the sprouted dahl fritter offers a passage to India via the taco. And last winter, The Pickle Barrel in Toronto rolled out a limited-time Tiki and Tacos menu, which included the PB Reuben Taco with pulled pastrami, Thousand Island slaw, Swiss cheese, deli mustard, onions and gherkins.
Just about anything deep-fried is pretty much guaranteed to be a winner, and imaginative takes on egg rolls offer an opportunity to create something not easily replicated at home. At Carino/Carino Riserva in Calgary, the Pizza Harumaki—a mozzarella and basil spring roll with tomato sauce—delivers classic Italian flavours in an Asian format. We’ve also found a bunch of fusion egg roll inspiration in the U.S. The chorizo egg roll at Saucy Porka in Chicago is filled with Mexican queso, sweet potato and red cabbage. It’s served with avocado aïoli for dipping. Cochon Volant, also in Chicago, takes a continental approach with Croque-Madame egg rolls filled with ham and cheese and served with “superhot” French mustard. A curious addition to this category is the Wontaco from Baocos, which is neither a wonton nor a taco, but an egg roll stuffed with sirloin steak and pepper Jack cheese, fried then split lengthwise; each half is stuffed with lettuce, onion, tomato, salsa, guacamole and sour cream.
Smothered fries—from poutine to chili-cheese fries—will never lose relevance in the landscape of Canadian comfort food. Chef-driven versions, like the Wild-Boar Poutine at Locus Restaurant & Lounge in Vancouver are an attention-getting way to elevate the concept and appeal to adventurous diners who crave something edgy.
Global flavours are another excellent way to change up poutines and other dishes based on fries. At Varsha Indian Kitchen in Victoria, British Columbia, the Butter-Chicken Poutine tops fries with cheese curds, chicken and housemade butter-chicken sauce. The Chorizo Sausage Poutine is a spicy addition to the menu at Wild Wing, which has locations throughout Canada.
In Québec, Scores Chicken & Ribs menus a General Tao Poutine with pieces of breaded chicken fillets and General Tao sauce. At Bao Down in Vancouver, Kimchi Fries (double-fried Kennebec fries, crispy pork belly, sweet soy sauce, crispy garlic, bean sprouts, garlic-scape mayo and scallions) and Japayoki Fries (fried chicken, curry cheese sauce, seaweed, jalapeños, bean sprouts, pea shoots, white and black sesame seeds, sweet soy and togarashi sauces) bring Asian flavour to fries.
Today’s diners have an undying affection for creative handheld food, especially burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches. Mashups offer the opportunity to add variety to these menu staples with unexpected combinations delivered in a familiar format.
One excellent example is the “Double Cheese Burgushi” burger-sushi mashup—a deep-fried sushi roll with bacon cheese, local grass-fed beef and spicy Japanese mayo—at Nu Burger Sushi Bar in Calgary.
Vancouver-based White Spot Restaurant’s limited-time Comfort Foods Bundle featured a Macaroni & Cheese Bigger Burger (topped with housemade macaroni and cheese, cheddar cheese, sautéed onions, bacon, Sriracha-ketchup and mayonnaise. White Spot also menus a PBBJ 50/50 Burger with crunchy peanut butter, bacon, bacon jam and pickled jalapeños. And, on the horizon of the mashup pantheon is the "Cuban-pressed Lau'Lau banh mi set to debut this summer at La Habanera in Montréal.
Bowls—rice or noodles—have huge customer appeal and offer loads of opportunity for creativity. We’ve found many inspired bowl mashups that can play well at any table and are leading-edge enough to offer significant competitive differentiation.
In New York, Shalom Japan brings together the unlikely concept mashup of Jewish deli and Japanese sushi bar. Their lox bowl, filled with rice, cucumber, Japanese pickle and avocado, is a brilliant combination that makes you wonder why there aren’t more Jewish-Japanese restaurants.
The Italian ramen at All’onda in New York immerses pleasantly chewy, handmade noodles with a Parmesan-dashi broth swimming with thinly sliced porchetta and shaved Brussels sprouts. Sqirl in Los Angeles serves a brunch bowl of brown-rice porridge with Straus Creamery milk, toasted hazelnuts and pear jam for an upmarket alternative to oatmeal.
All in all, global-flavour mashups offer opportunities for adding endless variety to the menu. These dishes are not overly complicated, and that’s what makes them work so well. The best mashups are based on combinations of just two or three flavour profiles. They’re carefully thought out, and—I can’t stress this enough—they’re well executed.