Thanks to a more educated palate, the American consumer has gained a taste for a variety of foods. Some of those tastes have gone over the Pacific to Asian cuisine.

And in the American way, businesses are adapting to those changing tastes. Chains that offer Asian cuisine are on the rise and taking advantage of the demand.

Panda Restaurant Group is one of those companies rising to the challenge. It started in 1973 as the full-service Panda Inn in Pasadena, Calif., which is still the company’s home. Ten years later, the company was opening its first Panda Express at the Glendale Galleria mall. Now celebrating its 35th anniversary, Panda Restaurant Group is a leader in Asian restaurants with nearly 1,200 locations in 36 states operating under the Panda Express, Panda Inn and Hibachi-San brands

A growth area

But which came first? A population that has grown more diverse or public that has learned more about food through the still growing media available on television, in publications and on the Internet.

“A combination of an increasingly diverse population and increasingly educated public,” says Anna Nero, executive director of menu strategy for Panda. “With the more diverse population comes the unique opportunity for mom-and-pop restaurants to introduce new types of Asian cuisine. As diners become more knowledgeable in these flavors, it fuels growth.”

She says that food media has done a lot to romance the adventure of visiting far away places by trying new cuisines right in your own backyard — whether you’re dining out or attempting to make something new at home. It makes the unfamiliar “safe.”

Such education has had companies working to stay on the forward edge of cuisine.

“We have always strived to create dishes that are fresh, authentic and highly craveable with broad appeal,” says Jill Preston, spokeswoman for Noodles & Co., a national chain that serves Italian and Asian noodle entrees. “It’s really about striking a balance that allows us to remain relevant for our guests by anticipating their needs and providing flavors that will resonate with them. Given the breadth of our globally inspired menu, there are tremendous opportunities to encourage our guests to be more adventurous with our menu.”

Noodles & Co. has found success since it opened in the Denver area in 1995. The Broomfield, Colo., chain is a quick-casual, globally inspired noodle restaurant that serves a balanced menu of made-to-order Asian, Mediterranean and American noodle dishes, soups and salads. One of the company’s most popular dishes is Japanese Pan Noodles, caramelized udon noodles in a sweet soy sauce with broccoli, carrots and shiitake mushrooms. Asian sprouts, black sesame and cilantro garnish the entrée and it is recommended to be served with beef.

Preston says the company believes there has been increased focus on more authentic flavors stemming from specific regional ethnic cuisines, an increase in full-flavored menu items and a surge of spicier dishes in the last few years.

“With more diverse demographics, different ingredients and flavor profiles have emerged and gained popularity,” adds Nero. “We stay aware of what is popular and translate them into entrees for Panda Express. For instance, the current promotion at Panda Express is Thai Cashew Chicken, which will be running from October 22 through December 30. The cilantro is popular across many demographics.”

Sparking interest

Preston says the popularity of Asian cuisine really began in the late 1990s and around 2000. Roy Yamaguchi with his Pacific Rim cuisine brought a lot of the Asian flavors to the forefront.

“There is an excitement around Asian street food that offers so many bold and exotic flavors and textures,” Preston continues. “Freshly prepared sushi or quickly sautéed/grilled items are usually accompanied with an exciting dipping sauce and provide opportunities to share a journey into an alluring part of the world without having to get on the plane. Ultimately, it stimulates all of our senses, and we try to capture that on our menu.”

Serving entrees that step out of the general menu can raise some challenges. Preston says that Noodles & Co.’s supply-chain team determines qualified protein suppliers based on the flavor and nutritional requirements determined by its culinary and R&D teams.

“To this point, chicken has not been a problem to source,” she continues. “However, we have not been able to meet all of our requirements for beef and have had to compromise at about 80 to 90 percent of what we expect.”

For Panda, Nero says, the primary factor to deciding which suppliers to work with is based on their food quality and food safety. She says it has not been difficult to find suppliers that can supply products needed.

Using domestic ingredients can affect the dish itself not to mention the fact that even with food education, the market being served is distinctly different from Asian countries.

“We use locally produced ingredients so the flavors are slightly different and in general, our recipes are geared towards mainstream diners,” Nero says.

The interest, however, has been good for business. David Landsberg, vice president of real estate – west for Panda Restaurant Group, says the company opened 172 restaurants across the country in 2007 with plans to open 160 in 2008.

“We are constantly evaluating new markets and enter a few each year,” he adds. “This year we are opening street stores for the first time in Jacksonville, Fla., and Long Island, N.Y.”

Preston says that Noodles & Co. has also seen major expansion. The company currently has 198 locations across the country with more opening. Plans are for 500 restaurants to be opened in the next five years.

“We have always planned on expanding our concept into new and existing markets, and that strategy hasn’t changed,” she says. “We are expanding into different types of trade areas than a few years back, specifically more urban areas.”