Trend Feast

Handheld Heroes: Late-Night Cravings Go Global

Apr 01, 2024

Handheld Heroes: Late-Night Cravings Go Global

Between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. on weekends, there’s typically a steady stream of late-night revelers crowding the entrance of the Golden Nugget Pancake House on Chicago’s north side. It’s one of the few diners operating 24 hours a day since the pandemic, and the menu offers a variety of selections.

Of course, there are pancakes—always made from scratch and fluffy, buttery and accompanied by house-made maple syrup. But at this hour, most customers come for something simpler and savory, so they choose from one of the many sandwiches.

Offerings range from classic BLT, chicken or turkey clubs to carne asada tacos to a meatball sandwich smothered in marinara, topped with mozzarella and served on a soft roll. Burgers are also popular. At the Golden Nugget, they’re char-broiled and arrive with a mound of beer-battered onion rings or curly fries.

While the Golden Nugget typically errs on the safe side with classic American favorites and a few Mexican and Italian handhelds thrown in for good measure, there’s a push at other late-night establishments to go global or feature regional favorites.

According to Datassential, late night is the second most common occasion for comfort food (behind dinner). That’s because 82% of consumers indulge in comfort food frequently—once a week or more—according to the study.1 Additional important stats: 18% of consumers visit a restaurant for a late-night meal at least once per week; 32% visit a restaurant for a late-night meal at least once per month; and 53% of operators believe late-night menus are a long-term trend.1 As a result, many of the top national chains launched 576 sandwiches and burgers in 2023.1

Handhelds are hotter than ever

The 24-hour IHOP, for example, amped up its classic handheld menu with several regional offerings. There’s a Nashville Hot Chicken Melt—inspired by Nashville-based Prince’s Hot Chicken restaurants’ concept—comprised of crispy chicken breast strips tossed in hot sauce and topped with mayonnaise, American cheese, a four-cheese blend and pickles (dill pickles have grown 169% on chicken sandwiches in the past four years).2

Additionally at IHOP, a Philly Cheese Steak Stacker is made with grilled sirloin and onions and topped with melted American cheese. And the Cali-Roasted Turkey Melt consists of roasted turkey breast, hickory-smoked bacon, four-cheese blend, roasted cherry tomatoes and fresh avocado.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Park Slope after-hours hang Medusa The Greek offers a hefty selection of gyro handhelds. Of course, the restaurant features more conventional choices made with shredded braised lamb, slow-roasted lamb and sliced grilled chicken breast. What sets Medusa apart are unique global finds such as the Carne Asada Gyro (carne asada has grown 9% on menus in the past four years) topped with mint chimichurri and tzatziki—and a Vegan Lentil Falafel Gyro stuffed with beet hummus, onion, tomato, pickles and a tahini drizzle. Last fall, there was even an LTO, a Lamb Birria Gyro.2 Served with a heap of Greek-style fries, the Mexican-inspired concoction was made of four-hour braised lamb, rich Graviera cheese and red onions. It was a hit that went over well with customers.

Carne Asada Fries continue to grow on late-night menus

According to Datassential, Carne Asada Fries have grown 47% on menus in the past four years.2 An atypical menu item at traditional Mexican eateries, the indulgent dish is credited to Lolita’s Mexican Food, which claims to have first made it in San Diego in the 1990s.3 It originally consisted of grilled steak, guacamole, sour cream, cheddar and cotija cheese over a heaping of steaming hot fries or chips. It’s a popular option for those who don’t want a sandwich, but want something more substantial than a side of fries.

At most restaurants, you’ll find a variation on the original. For example, Brick & Flour Artisanal Mexican Grill uses beer-battered fries as its base. The Los Angeles restaurant also adds salsa, chipotle aioli, cilantro and avocado aioli to the mix. Also in Los Angeles, popular plant-based spot Never Caged features a house-made vegan carne asada to top its large plate of fries.

Taco Bell even had its own version, called Steak Chile Verde Fries, which it launched in May 2023 as an LTO.4 It consisted of the signature Crispy Nacho Fries topped with marinated grilled steak, chile verde sauce, nacho cheese sauce, fiesta strips, reduced-fat sour cream and a three-cheese blend.

“Spicy, crunchy, saucy. These are the flavor and texture profiles our fans crave time and time again at each Nacho Fries moment,” said Liz Matthews, Taco Bell’s Chief Food Innovation Officer, during the time of the launch. “Our food innovation team wanted to create layers of flavors for Nacho Fries, and we’re proud of the boldness of the new chile verde sauce. You can really taste the balanced pops of lime, garlic and jalapeño in the sauce, and it’s the perfect pairing for our beloved Nacho Fries.”

Globally focused offerings aim to appeal to late-night crowds

In Chicago’s vibrant Lakeview neighborhood, late-night offerings span the globe. Such is the case at Brazilian Bowl, which stays open later on weekends with choices like tacos, crispy empanadas, burgers and, of course, the signature bowls. Customers can enjoy the contents of the Brazilian Steak Bowl (grilled beef, Brazilian mushroom sauce, cheese, pico de gallo, grilled vegetables, seasoned rice) in the traditional manner or all wrapped up in a burrito and served with black or pinto beans.

When a similar dish, Churrasco Steak Bowl served with a side of chimichurri sauce, launched at Pollo Tropical in January 2023, it scored above the 90th percentile on four of six key metrics with consumers compared to other LTOs at the restaurant.5 Although it performed well during its brief stint at Pollo Tropical’s outposts, overall Brazilian or churrasco specials are not growing on menus, according to Datassential.

One dish that’ll never go out of style is the hot dog. While there’s always a raging debate on whether it’s considered a sandwich, one fact is clear: The hot dog is a handheld.

Every culture appears to have its take on the classic dog, from a Korean-inspired BBQ hot dog topped with kimchi to Perro Paisas’ version that’s loaded with cheese, bacon, mayo, ketchup, quail eggs, crushed potato chips and more. The latter is from a Colombian food-truck-turned restaurant based in Boston. It may sound over the top, but reportedly the late-night nosh is extremely popular with customers because it sells out every weekend by 11:00 p.m.

It indeed sounds like the ideal cure for a hangover.

Ready to dial-up your late-night snack game? Here are a few recipes to consider from the Simplot Culinary Team:

Bacon, Egg and Cheddar Caramelized Onion Biscuit Sandwich
A late-night snack that really satisfies that breakfast craving. Enjoy crispy bacon, a fried egg, perfectly seasoned caramelized onions, and our new Harvest Fresh® Cucumber-Tzatziki Flavored Avocado Spread that brings it all together.
View Recipe »

Brazilian Churrasco Sandwich
What do meat lovers want for a late-night snack? Answer: This sandwich. With tender strips of seasoned beef, caramelized onions, melted provolone, creamy avocado and a punchy, bright chimichurri sauce.
View Recipe »

Carne Asada Fries Taco
You read that right, we put the fries right in the taco. Every bite has the perfect combination of carne asada, crispy fries, spicy guacamole, pico, and melted queso. Prepare to make a lot of these—they’re going to be popular!
View Recipe »

Spicy Fried Chicken and Dill Pickle Avocado Sandwich
Why settle for an average chicken sandwich? Top a brioche bun with spicy fried chicken, crunchy coleslaw, and a generous amount of Harvest Fresh® Dill Pickle Flavored Avocado Spread that really takes it to the next level.
View Recipe »

1 Datassential, ReportPro, 2024
2 Datassential, MenuTrends, 2024
3 The Untold Truth of Carne Asada
4 Taco Bell® Puts A Zesty Twist On Classic Fries With Steak Chile Verde
5 Datassential, Launches & Ratings, 2024