The salsa bar has become an integral part of the dining experience at Moe’s Southwest Grill. The chain’s 400-plus restaurants feature three permanent salsas—fire-roasted pepper, chunky tomato and onion, and tomatillo with cilantro and jalapeño—along with a salsa that rotates in every six months.
“People are more educated on flavor profiles than they ever have been, and they know exactly what they want,” says Dan Barash, director of research and development for Atlanta-based Moe’s. “We’ve even seen people take cups of the roasted corn pico de gallo from the salsa bar to the cooking line and ask for it to be put in their burrito.”
Similarly, Asian sauces have lent themselves to customization, a tradition that continues at companies such as Pei Wei, a Scottsdale, Arizona–based fast-casual chain whose more than 150 restaurants focus on foods of various southeast Asian cultures.
The company has a variety of sauces, but they are not added until each dish is cooked, says Eric Justice, the chain’s director of culinary operations. As a result, customers can request extra or less sauce, as well as fewer or no spices, garlic, or other flavorings.
“I spend a lot of time on the line, and I bet about a third of the people do some sort of customization,” Justice says.
Asian influences are also important to sauces at Phillips Seafood Restaurants. Although traditional mayonnaise-based tartar sauce is served with the company’s crab cakes, the company looked to the Far East for inspiration for its newest condiment, Pineapple Sweet Chili Sauce, as a dipping sauce for spring rolls and calamari.
“It goes well across different proteins, so we expect customers will use the new sauce with shrimp, chicken, and pork as well,” says the Baltimore company’s executive chef, Dennis Gavagan. “The chili paste in the sauce is traditional, and I thought the pineapple was a natural fit, sweet but unique to the industry.”
International flavors are cutting across regional and national themes. One chain, Boston Market, is testing a salsa bar in several markets that feature not only Mexican flavors, but Mediterranean and South American ones as well.
This explosion of sauces also had an affect on that old favorite, french fries and ketchup. A number of quick serves have popped up featuring Belgian frites (fries originally were from Belgium, not France) with a wide range of dipping sauces.
At fRedhots and Fries in Glenview, Illinois, owner Fred Markoff makes fresh-cut fries with a choice of garlic, wasabi, chipotle, spicy aioli, artichoke, pesto, and Filipino red banana pepper dips; and one daily special flavor.
Markoff, a restaurant veteran, also created a long list of dips. For instance, one day when he used Jamaican spice for jerking pork, he also whipped up a jerk aioli.
Fries are served in cones and come with at least two dipping sauces. Customers who take more are charged 50 cents for each extra one.
Although fRedhots serves sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs, more than 95 percent of customers get fries. He considers it a challenge to get customers to try new sauces.
“The house rule is take a sauce,” he says. “Most people thank us for that.”