Focus on: Tortilla Chips

Like Rodney Dangerfield, tortilla chips traditionally suffer from lack of respect. In Mexican concepts and pubs, baskets are typically given away free to munch with a drink until the food arrives. Even when chips are key to a menu item—like nachos—they’re secondary to the toppings. Yet the quality of a tortilla chip can make or break an eating experience. And customers seem to be getting fussier about their chips—whether they pay for them or not.

“People are more aware of authenticity and quality; they’re becoming connoisseurs,” claims Jose Castro, VP Foodservice-West Division of Olé Mexican Foods. To meet that heightened awareness, his company and other leading suppliers are producing chips that focus on flavor, texture and variety to meet a greater number of menu applications.

“When we started making chips, we wanted ones that weren’t too thin or too thick. Our goal was to preserve the corn taste and make sure they wouldn’t break easily,” he adds. Since then, the category has evolved to include chips in a range of thicknesses, colors and shapes.

Chips are sold in two basic formats to foodservice: Pre-fried and Pre-cut Unfried, points out Robin Tobor, director of marketing for Mission Foodservice. Mission’s yellow and white corn pre-fried tortilla chips come in rounds or triangles, packed in six 2-pound bags to each 12-pound case. The company also sells mixed cases of tri-colored chips (red, white and blue), which are among the company’s top 10 sellers, as well as 3-ounce portion packs. But, she notes, “pre-cut unfried chips are a growing category. Operators like them because they come out to the table warm and homemade-looking.”

For unfried chips, the manufacturer cuts a sheeted corn tortilla into either strips, rounds or four or six wedges, and delivers them fresh to the restaurant. They can then be fried in the back-of-the house as needed; the unfried product has a shelf life of 75 days under refrigeration. “It used to be that many restaurants cut the tortillas themselves to make fresh chips. This product assures consistency and saves labor,” says Tobor. Castro agrees, adding “we’re now doing the most volume in our ready-to-fry chips.”

Chip thickness preferences vary by region and application. When an operator offers free chips with salsa, a thinner chip—which is less expensive—is usually the choice, says Castro. But when presentation is important, a studier chip is called for—frequently in a tri-color combo. “We have Sports Bar customers who even spec chips in team colors,” he says. “And one Irish Pub requested green chips to coordinate with their theme. We were able to customize for them.”

When evaluating a tortilla chip for quality, check for a corny flavor, crisp texture and fairly regular surface “without any big bubbles,” says Tobor. Test out the chip in its intended applications; if it breaks easy when dipped into guacamole or salsa, go for a slightly thicker product.