The National Restaurant Association show (which unfortunately is abbreviated the NRA Show) is the universe’s largest food and beverage trade show, and second place isn’t particularly close. Held annually at McCormick Place in Chicago, the show floor is brain-meltingly large, spanning the space of 22 football fields—with food samples, cooking demonstrations, and the latest in kitchenware and restaurant technology, literally as far as your eyes can see.
Every year brings new products and food innovations, and we at The A.V. Club spent the last three days scouring the convention for interesting and curious finds.
This is my 12th year attending the National Restaurant Association show, and with each passing iteration, the taste gap between fake meat and real meat narrows. It finally happened in 2017: I tasted a burger and couldn’t tell that it wasn’t meat. Beyond Meat, based in Southern California, has developed a burger patty that uses pea protein, coconut oil, and beet juice to replicate the texture and taste of beef. If you didn’t know it was a plant-based burger, carnivores wouldn’t tell the difference. Once you know, the interior “meat” isn’t quite as creamy as medium-rare beef, but the taste is strikingly similar. Here’s the rub: Even though it’s vegetarian, this patty contains as much fat and calories as an equivalent beef burger. But there’s no cholesterol, and if you believe your diet should contain fewer animal products, this burger may be one solution.
The most interesting thing I tasted this year was Ahimi, a product that aims to replicate tuna sashimi but is entirely vegan. I sampled two pieces of nigiri and still found it difficult to discern that this wasn’t fish. Ahimi is made from tomatoes, and company officials told me it took four years to work out this formulation. The process required removing the taste of tomato (mainly from its liquid) and replacing it with soy sauce and other savory flavors. Even more than the meatless burger mentioned above, the texture and taste of Ahimi is a dead ringer to sushi-grade tuna. Quite a magic trick they conjured up here.
Budweiser licensed its name for BBQ sauces about a decade ago, but this reformulated line of sauces—dubbed Brewmaster’s Premium—was developed in-house by AB InBev executive chefs Sam Niemann and Vito Racanelli Jr. (Anheuser-Busch has executive chefs?). Budweiser beer is listed as an ingredient, but the alcohol has been cooked out. This will come in a number of different flavors as well as a wing sauce.
Hummustir is a create-your-own hummus that company officials say is shelf-stable for up to one year. The package comes with three sealed pouches—chickpea puree, tahini (sesame paste), and spices—to which you add to the cup and stir with the included spoon. So if you’re a deep woods survivalist or astronaut and are jonesing for hummus, this is the solution you’ve been seeking.
The inventor of this yet-to-be-released, patented straw tells me the Blendy Straw was conceived to better enjoy smoothies and slushy drinks. The problem: Regular straws don’t do an adequate job mixing frozen beverages—”You push at it with your straw, but you just poke holes in it. You stir it, but the mass just twirls,” claims the marketing brochure. This straw utilizes umbrella-like mechanics, spreading its stirring prongs with a push of its exterior layer.
Claiming they’re the “most innovative product to hit the hot dog category in decades,” Snap Dog sells beef franks that are tattooed with its logo and the word “beef” imprinted on its skinless hot dogs. When I asked a company rep why, he argued consumers didn’t want to deal with mystery meat, and would rather know exactly the ingredients in their hot dogs. Personally, if I’m going to eat a hot dog, I’ve already conceded that I don’t care what I’m ingesting, so whether it’s beef, pork, or rat, I’m still eating it. Still, the company says with its hot dog, it “guarantees peace of mind, every time.”
I first saw Bee Free Honee appear on Shark Tank a year ago, where it garnered three investors from Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, and Chris Sacca. The product is honey not gathered from beehives, but made from apples. It’s a vegan honey, essentially, and I finally got to taste the product at the National Restaurant Show. The initial taste is undeniably honey, with an identical consistency, but then the flavor mellows out to a rounded apple finish. It’s quite lovely (especially the mint, which goes well with hot tea), and comes with a multitude of creative flavors.
Japanese company Marin Food has come out with a smoked butter that’s pretty dang tasty. It tastes exactly as you’d expect—butter with the flavor of smoked applewood. I can see this with corn on the cob, salmon, and brushed on grilled steak.
Because bloody marys aren’t perfect-enough illustrations of American excess (or maybe because it is), Gourmet Mixes Inc. now offers a glass rim salt that tastes like bacon. The salt mix contains no actual pork and is in fact a vegan product, which will offset the fried chicken and stuffed-crust pizza garnish you’ll use to top your bloody mary.