The food items on the menu can make or break a new restaurant. Before opening day rolls around, restaurant owners and their chefs spend hours planning menus and wondering whether their culinary offerings will tickle consumers' taste buds and entice them to come back for more. There is, however, a concept that offers a solution to this dilemma: Allow diners to choose ingredients from a fresh-food bar containing a variety of meats and vegetables, select a sauce or concoct their own, and then watch as a chef stir-fries the dish in a wok or cooks it on a grill.
First known as Mongolian barbecue, the newest incarnation of this cuisine, do-it-yourself stir-fry restaurants, is taking America by storm. Prior to the mid-20th century, restaurants in the United States serving Chinese and other Asian foods could only be found in the "Chinatowns" or other ethnic enclaves of major cities such as Chicago and San Francisco. But by 1997, Asian restaurants were cooking up nearly $10 billion per year in sales, and according to monthly magazine Chinese Restaurant News, today there are more than 30,000 such restaurants in the United States, a 36 percent increase since 1992.
Do-it-yourself stir-fry cuisine is just the latest in a long line of ethnic foods to undergo the transition from exotic foreign delicacy to everyday staple. "In the past 20 years, there has been a real ethnicization of Americans' taste buds," says Susan Blank of New York City-based international marketing research and consulting firm Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. "Ethnic foods and concepts start out in immigrant areas and, over time, jump out to the population in general. This has happened with both Italian and Mexican food. Originally, Mexican food was only served in small Mexican-owned restaurants in ethnic areas, and gradually it became a more American cuisine. In the process, the food has changed to suit American palates, but eventually it gained universal acceptance."