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Food frontier 

A glimpse into our dining future with highlights from Expo 2000

I have seen the future and it is ... sausages. That's right, links -- franks, brats, wieners and wursts in every conceivable flavor and form. And they're coming soon to restaurants near you.

Food- and restaurant-wise, almost everything that happens in Atlanta gets its start in California a year or two earlier. With that in mind, I checked out the recent Western Foodservice and Hospitality Exposition in San Francisco. About 25,000 restaurateurs, food flaks, sales reps and professional eaters attended the show at Moscone Center. Operatives in booths, snack bars, bar bars and elaborate schmooze centers showed off computerized recipe files, in-store deli centers, expensive prep machines, millennial tableware, dull-but-necessary sanitation and pest-control systems, alcoholic beverages a sane person wouldn't want to think about and thousands upon thousands of new food products.

Bake-and-serve chocolate chunk cookies that come to the table as warm and aromatic as those served in first class on transcontinental airline flights drew me back for second and third helpings. A Canadian bakery company named English Bay Batter topped the list of several such offerings for restaurant use. Plastic takeout boxes in shapes such as stars and half moons are in our future as well. They add about $1 to the price of a meal. In these flush days, who's counting?

Roughly a third of the booths at EXPO 2000 was equipped with a toaster oven, hot plate or electric grill, working overtime heating up meat sticks. From delicate seafood sausages to ballpark weenies, Americans do love links. They're already one of our favorite forms of one-handed pleasure. Still, if the California futures market is any measure, the inexpensive, easily stored, simple-to-prepare pupsters could replace teriyaki tuna, hangar steak, slow-smoked salmon and fried chicken on fashionable dinner plates from Alpharetta to Peachtree City.

Pick a dream dog and I probably tasted it at Moscone Center. Spicy Mexican? Cajun chicken? Bombay hot? Thai peppery? Cowpoke smoky? Lamb, buffalo and ostrich? Portabello and foie gras? Venison laced with truffles? Low fat and full fat? Foot-long or the length of your pinky? Served naked or knife-and-fork style? Ultra-natural or preserved like shrunken heads? You got it ... or soon will.

And you'll be seeing these products dressed in a lot more than mustard and relish. Think fruit salsas, Oaxacan moles, mixed-herb pestos and fishy, Bangkok-style dipping sauces. Top a basil-laced chicken dog with feta cheese and olive paste. Sliced garlic brats can be fanned over Caesar salad.

About the only type missing from the West Coast lineup was a pork pup that makes its own barbecue sauce. Surely some enterprising sonny bubba will come up with a recipe and sales plan for that.

Besides dogs and chocolate chips, here's a rundown on tasty, notable novelties that were new to me.

Tuna burgers. Omega Foods of Eugene, Ore., showed off a sensational variation on its popular salmon burger. The yellow-fin burger's flavor is light and fresh tasting; calorie and cholesterol counts are low. Produced in small batches, the 3.2-ounce burgers are dairy and gluten free. Bye bye, Bubba Burgers.

Sushi robotics. It had to happen. With sushi madness rising and sushi masters in increasingly short supply, Michael Toshio International is importing a line of Japanese-made Tomoe sushi systems. One relatively unskilled operator, using the Maki Sushi Robot, can turn out up to 300 California rolls an hour. Cooked rice fed from a hopper drops onto sheets of dried seaweed, the operative lays on crab, pre-cooked, skewer-less yakitori (also supplied by Toshio) or other ingredients, presses a button, and ker-slurrrrp -- you have neatly sliced rolls ready to eat. Or wrap -- using the Nigiri packing system.

Crab-stuffed pepper poppers. Sure, the asbestos-tongue crowd orders fried, cheese-stuffed jalapeños by the handful. Familiar variations from Leon's Texas Cuisine include cheddar and bacon, chicken and cheese and bacon-stuffed. I'd never tasted crab-stuffed poppers, though, and these Jalitos are tops -- peppery hot but not wounding, real fresh-crabby tasting rather than generic and ersatz. And the samples I tried weren't remotely greasy.

On-the-go tamales. Designed for convenience-store customers and travelers with the highway hungries, Grande Bakery's Traditional Tamales are substantial enough to eat with one hand while driving a car with the other. Stuffed with pork, chicken or beef (there's also a blue corn with cheese model), the moderately spiced tamales are moist but not drippy. Think of them as edible cell phones.

Flavored coffees by the cup. Designed for office use but with restaurant adaptations a possibility, Diedrich Coffee Express combines West Coast bean blends in pre-measured and sealed brewing cups with pressurized hot water to make no-mess, single-serve cups of java. Voila, the customer's choice -- be it French Roast, 100 percent Colombian, Sumatra or house-blend decaf. Flavored coffee options can be plugged in using Gloria Jean's Coffees, including hazelnut, Swiss chocolate almond, Irish Cream and French vanilla. Gloria Jean's already has office accounts in Atlanta.

Flavored salad bowls. OK, we've seen bland-but-edible tortilla bowls in every chain restaurant from here to brand-name row. Smokewood Foods of Fullerton, Calif., offers what it calls "a whole new way of serving salads." What's new? Salad shells in four popular flavors -- ranch, Italian, Caesar and sun-dried tomato with basil. What's for dessert? Sugar-dusted berry baskets packed for retail sales as well as food service. Yee-ha.

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