Getting off the street

When it comes to international street food, Chef Hinnerk Von Bargen has become an expert. He joined the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) faculty in 1999 and currently serves as professor and leader of the Culinary Arts Department at its San Antonio, Texas, campus. In addition to teaching culinary courses, Von Bargen is involved in product R&D through the CIA’s industry consulting division.

His book “Street Foods” was published in 2015, and in 2017 he and his wife Ming Qian Von Bargen opened Ming’s Noodle Bar in downtown San Antonio.

“Primarily, I’m with the CIA, but for me Ming’s Noodle Bar is a cool playground for testing concepts,” Von Bargen said.

Ming was developing the Noodle Bar at about the same time her husband was finishing his book, aiming to provide how-to information for chefs interested in developing a street food concept.


While chefs may aspire to maintain the authenticity of different cuisines, Von Bargen recognizes all cuisines need space to evolve.

“If you push authenticity too much, how could we accept tomatoes in Italian cuisine?” he said. “There were no tomatoes in Italy or cashews in Chinese cuisine.”

In San Antonio, Von Bargen is seeing an increase in the use of harissa, peri peri, fermented chili paste, chimichurri and other condiments that provide a way to boost the flavor of grilled meats.

“Guests put it on the meat themselves when it’s served as a tableside condiment in an Argentinian restaurant, for example,” he said. “Also, with the growing awareness of Latin cuisine, chimichurri is being used for a simple braise.”

The Cheesecake Factory embraces change

For more than three decades, Robert Okura, CEC, CCEC, CMRDP, has been attuned to the flavor sensibilities among his myriad guests at The Cheesecake Factory. The Cheesecake Factory, Calabasas Hills, California, operates approximately 200 restaurants in the US and a dozen locations in the Middle East, China and Mexico. Recipes at the international locations are identical to those prepared and served in the US. Whenever a new concept is being developed, it’s trialed in the field at six beta-site Cheesecake Factory restaurants throughout the country.

“We used to be guided by comfort food,” Okura said. “In my opinion, street foods are really good examples of comfort foods to that region. It’s what the local people grew up with from taquitos to Asian chicken dumplings. Our chicken parmesan sandwich, crispy tempura fish tacos and miso salmon are all ‘street foods’ prepared and received with love.”


Based on research conducted in Mexico City and Guadalajara, Okura and his staff developed green chilaquiles, which became a popular breakfast item on The Cheesecake Factory’s menu.

“The recipe is based on my personal research of authentic presentations and authentic flavors; the ingredients (including chips, cheese, etc.) honor the authenticity of the dish,” he said. “Our presentation respects the ethnic roots of this dish; we enhanced it to make it more acceptable to our guests.”

The most significant challenge Okura faces is balancing authenticity of a concept with the need to engage customers. One success story is gochujang.

“We’re using it now more than ever,” he said. “It’s spicy but not just like Tabasco. We have a Korean crispy fried cauliflower appetizer that went to the top in popularity. We couldn’t make it without the gochujang.”

Asian customers who visit The Cheesecake Factory have reported surprise and delight to find the recipe reminds them enough of the original to warrant them saying it’s being done correctly.


“I’m confident we’ll make guests from that international culture happy because we’re doing everything we can to be respectful of that culture — and we want to offer it to as many people as possible,” Okura said.