How Accurate Are These "International" Chain Restaurants?

You can find many different options for inexpensive international food at your local food court or strip mall. But given their accessible menus and price points, how authentic are these chains? Let’s look at how some of the most popular international food chains were developed, how they’ve grown, and what their food is like today — to find out if what you  get there is a good representation of the country they claim to represent.

Olive Garden

Up close view of Olive Garden sign and logo against a rock wall
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This restaurant is famous for a series of ads that encouraged diners to take their extended Italian family with them. However, Olive Garden has only a minimal connection to Italy.

The restaurant was first opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1982 by the General Mills company. The restaurant was developed specifically to become a chain and did quite well in that regard. It opened 150 restaurants in the first decade and today has over 800 locations.

And how authentic is their Italian cuisine? The restaurant has admitted that certain menu items, such as pastachetti and soffichetti, were fabricated in house and had no basis in Italian cooking. However, the very Italian dish Chicken Alfredo remains the restaurant’s most ordered item. This indicates that the restaurant evokes at least some spirit of Mediterranean cuisine.

Panda Express

Street view of red and white Panda Express sign outside restaurant on a clear day
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While Olive Garden may have been the product of a corporate boardroom, Panda Express remains a family-operated business, despite having more than 2,000 restaurants.

Panda Express began as Panda Inn in Pasadena, California, in 1973, where Ming-Tsai Cherng, a celebrated chef, opened it with his son, Andrew. A local developer came up with the idea of a fast-service version of the store, and Panda Express grew over the following decades to become one of the largest restaurant chains in the United States.

However, the authenticity of Panda Express’s offering is a subject of debate. In general, their menu was designed with American tastes in mind, which means that Chinese cuisine is more of a source of inspiration rather than an objective.

One of Panda Express’s most iconic dishes, Orange Chicken, is an invention of the restaurant itself. While Orange Chicken has become so popular that you can find it at many restaurants serving Chinese food in America, you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in China that serves the same thing.

Chipotle

Street view of red Chipotle sign and logo with stone architecture in background
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Most people understand that Chipotle operates in the same sphere as Taco Bell does in its relation to real Mexican food, which is tenuous at best. The company started in Denver, Colorado, far from the Mexican border. It would become a major chain after McDonald's invested in it in 1998. The fast-food giant helped grow Chipotle from 15 locations to over 500 in less than 10 years.

While offerings such as burritos or hard shell tacos have little to do with traditional Mexican cooking, Chipotle does have some things in common with the traditions of its inspiration. One of the appeals of Chipotle is its sustainable model and commitment to cooking everything in house. In addition, Chipotle uses many of the same ingredients that you would encounter in traditional Mexican cooking. The presentation is the biggest difference.

Appreciating Fusion Cuisine

Fusion cuisine of sushi and roasted duck meat served on a black plate with vegetables
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It’s important to remember that all these chains don’t really mean to trick their patrons into thinking they are having a truly authentic experience. Whether you are a foodie or not, you should understand that to have that experience, you need to visit the place where the food is from. These chains serve what can be called fusion cuisine.

Sometimes it’s best to just embrace this because America is a melting pot of many wonderful cultures. To enjoy these foods best, go in with reasonable expectations and an open mind, and you might be rewarded. Just remember the story of Marilyn Haggerty, the 88-year-old food critic whose glowing review of an Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota, landed her a book deal brokered by none other than Anthony Bourdain.

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