For many younger Americans, tacos and dumplings top pizza and linguine

Architects Thomas Keller, left, and Henri Brooks eat tacos from El Fuego in Washington Square Park. "I eat Mexican twice a week," Keller said. / Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
Architects Thomas Keller, left, and Henri Brooks eat tacos from El Fuego in Washington Square Park. "I eat Mexican twice a week," Keller said. / Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

Jacob Noble doesn't have many friends who eat in Italian restaurants.

"They go for Mexican or Chinese," said Noble, 24, a guitar teacher in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

Italian cuisine is "for eating sitting down," he added. "Mexican and Chinese have more dishes that fit better with young people's grab-and-go culture. The only portable Italian is pizza."

Besides, he said, "Mexican lends itself to be shared. Nachos are communal. And way more affordable."

Part of an intergenerational food revolution, Noble represents how Americans under 45 choose to eat these days.


Millennials (ages 27 to 42) and those in Generation Z (ages 11 to 26) are the first to say that their favorite cuisines are Mexican and Chinese, breaking a decades-long pattern of Americans preferring Italian food, according to newly released findings from Dataessential, Chicago-based restaurant trend trackers.

For years, 90% of Baby Boomers said they preferred Italian cuisine over all others. Even Boomers' parents in the Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945) liked Italian best, noted Mike Kostyo, associate director and trendologist at Dataessential.

Millennials ranked Mexican over Italian, 82% to 79%, according to Dataessential. Gen Zers listed Mexican first (75%), Chinese second (71%) and Italian third (70%).

Experts offer numerous reasons for the ascendance of the taco and the dumpling over linguine — from immigration patterns to trend-driving social media.

Restaurant chain menus, especially, reflect the changing preferences.

The presence of tacos on menus has increased by 24% in the last decade, Dataessential reports. Ramen has gone from being on 0.9% of menus to 2.9% in that same period.

Meanwhile, pizza has dropped from 37.5% of menus to 32.1% in the last decade, according to Dataessential. During the same time, the frequency of other Italian items on menus has also decreased, including lasagna (down 15%), ravioli (down 12%) and Italian sausage (down 9%).

"I'm obsessed with weight and self-image," said Thomas Keller, 27, a Philadelphia architect. "And Italian food can be so carb-heavy. I eat Mexican twice a week." His colleague, Henri Brooks, 26, of South Philadelphia, said Mexican cuisine is so important to him, he'd "pick birria tacos as my last meal."

Food cognoscenti note the difference between the hearty, red-gravy Italian American fare and Italian cuisine that includes Mediterranean staples like vegetables, beans and fish.

Importantly, Millennials and Gen Zers "were exposed to a diversity of foods when they were younger, making them more open to other cuisines than their parents or grandparents," said Susanna Fioratta, an anthropology professor at Bryn Mawr College.

Indeed, when asked in 2020, "Do you love to try new types of foods?" more than 70% of Millennials said yes, compared to 61% of Generation X respondents, and 56% of Boomers, according to Shelley Balanko, senior vice president of the Hartman Group Inc., a Seattle-based company that studies food trends. Gen Z wasn't included.

Youth is when people try on new things and identities, Balanko said. "And," she added, "the racially diverse Millennial generation came into adulthood as food became more a part of pop culture."


MEAT AND POTATOES

Immigration has long explained the changing accent of American cuisine, said Krishnendu Ray, food studies professor at New York University.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, English, Irish and German immigrants "created the dominant template for American food, much of it raised on stolen native land," Ray said.

That influence, "which underacknowledged the African American gustatory experience," is still seen today in America's meat-and-potatoes bias.

The next wave of immigrants (1880 to 1924), according to Ray, included "20 million Italians, Slavs, Jews and Greeks. [Their] quintessentially ethnic food radically reshaped the American palate, with pizza, pierogies, gyros and bagels all added to [already existent] Chinese food."

Neither Chinese nor Mexican cooking is new to America. The first Chinese restaurants were established in 19th-century California, and the Southwest's Latino food traditions date back "forever," according to David Beriss, a University of New Orleans anthropologist and editor of the "FoodAnthropology" blog.

Starting in the mid-1960s, however, 40 million Asians and Latinos emigrated to the United States, Ray said, creating a "reconfiguration of American food as we know it. And we are still in the midst of this transformation."

One result of the population influx is the current hybridization of cuisines, Ray said: Korean tacos in Los Angeles; Indian burritos in New York; Mexican pizza in Philadelphia.


FRESH TAKES

Social media — along with celebrity influencers' Instagram photos of their meals — drive food trends among Millennials and Gen Zers, said Hanna Garth, a Princeton University food anthropologist.

People such as Detroit chef Jon Kung, with 1.7 million followers and 10 million views on TikTok and YouTube, "play around and have fun with foods," Garth said. "Kung is Chinese in origin and tries new ingredients and puts different things together," like dan dan lasagna, or Hong Kong chicken and waffles.

"They're foods young people might be open to," Garth continued, "and completely different from what Chinese food was in this country 100 years ago."

Younger people are also delving into more Mexican cuisines, enjoying offerings beyond the Taco Tuesdays of their middle-school days.

"Mexican food is very regional in style," said Michelle Zimmerman, who owns Las Bugambilias in Old City along with her husband, chef Carlos Molina. The restaurant features regional seafood dishes from Veracruz, she said. Young diners are attracted to Mexico's "expansive culinary palate," Zimmerman said.

Regional cooking also "keeps things interesting" in Italian food, said Sean Weinberg, chef and co-owner with his wife, Kelly, of Restaurant Alba in Malvern.

"The red-gravy Italian spots could be taking a hit," he said. "But we aren't worried if Italian slips to No. 2 or 3."

In truth, "no Italian restaurants are complaining" if they've dropped a bit in popularity, said Ben Fileccia, a director of the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association.

"They know there'll always be a spot for spaghetti and meatballs."