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- California Pizza Kitchen Original BBQ Chicken Pizza
California Pizza Kitchen Original BBQ Chicken Pizza
Menu Description: "Introduced in our first restaurant in 1985. With barbecued chicken, sliced red onion, cilantro, and smoked Gouda cheese."
In 1985, attorneys Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield traded in their private practice, which included defending mob bosses and union officials, for a specialty pizza chain. These two "amateur chefs" say they were influenced by Wolfgang Puck, whose Spago restaurant in Los Angeles was the first to create pizza with unusual toppings. Now they have developed a niche somewhere between gourmet food and traditional Italian-style pizzas, creating what one magazine described as "designer pizza at off-the-rack prices." In addition to the pastas, soups, and salads, California Pizza Kitchen offers dozens of unique pizza creations that reflect the current trends in dining. When Cajun food was in style, the Cajun chicken pizza was a top seller; today that item has been replaced with Southwestern and Thai pizza varieties. As the menu explains, the Barbecued Chicken Pizza was one of the first pizzas served at California Pizza Kitchen. Decades later it remains one of the top-selling pizza creations.
You can use this CPK BBQ chicken pizza recipe to make your pizza with pre-made or packaged dough, but I highly recommend taking the time to make the dough yourself. You'll find that it's well worth the little bit of extra work.
Click here to see if I cloned your favorite salads and appetizers from CPK.
Source: Top Secret Restaurant Recipes by Todd Wilbur.
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon warm water (105 degrees to 115 degrees F)
- 3/4 teaspoon yeast
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Rao's Homemade Marinara SauceRead more
Getting a table at the 123-year-old original Rao’s restaurant in New York City is next to impossible. The tables are “owned” by regulars who schedule their meals months in advance, so every table is full every night, and that’s the way it’s been for the last 38 years. The only way an outsider would get to taste the restaurant’s fresh marinara sauce is to be invited by a regular.
If that isn’t in the stars for you, you could buy a bottle of the sauce at your local market (if they even have it). It won't be fresh, and it's likely to be the most expensive sauce in the store, but it still has that great Rao's taste. An even better solution is to copy the Rao's Marinara sauce for yourself using this new and very easy recipe.
The current co-owner of Rao’s, Frank Pellegrino Jr., told Bon Appetit in 2015 that the famous marinara sauce was created by his grandmother many years ago, and the sauce you buy in stores is the same recipe served in his restaurants. The ingredients are common, but correctly choosing the main ingredient—tomatoes—is important. Try to find San Marzano-style whole canned tomatoes, preferably from Italy. They are a little more expensive than typical canned tomatoes, but they will give you some great sauce.
After 30 minutes of cooking, you’ll end up with about the same amount of sauce as in a large jar of the real thing. Your version will likely be just a little bit brighter and better than the bottled stuff, thanks to the fresh ingredients. But now you can eat it anytime you want, with no reservations, at a table you own.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
You might also like my #1 recipe of 2019, Texas Roadhouse Rolls.
Olive Garden Lasagna ClassicoRead more
Crafting an Olive Garden’s signature Lasagna Classico recipe became the perfect opportunity to create a beautiful multi-layered lasagna hack recipe that uses up the whole box of lasagna noodles and fills the baking pan all the way to the top. This Top Secret Recipe makes a lasagna that tips the scale at nearly 10 pounds and will feed hungry mouths for days, with every delicious layer copied directly from the carefully dissected Olive Garden original.
I found a few credible bits of intel in a video of an Olive Garden chef demonstrating what he claims is the real formula on a midday news show, but the recipe was abbreviated for TV and the chef left out some crucial information. One ingredient he conspicuously left out of the recipe is the secret layer of Cheddar cheese located near the middle of the stack. I wasn’t expecting to find Cheddar in lasagna, but when I carefully separated the layers from several servings of the original dish, there was the golden melted cheesy goodness in every slice.
This clone recipe will make enough for 8 big portions, but if you make slightly smaller slices this is easily enough food to fill twelve lasagna-loving bellies. If you like lasagna, you're going to love this version.
This recipe was our #2 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
Panda Express Chow MeinRead more
I got lucky on the day I picked up a box of chow mein from this huge Chinese chain because they had just run out. This meant that I could watch from the sidelines as they whipped up a fresh batch in a giant wok over a high flame in the completely visible kitchen, and I was able to take plenty of mental notes. The whole dish took just a few minutes for the enthusiastic chef to prepare, and before I knew it I was out the door with a huge box of hot chow mein ready for hacking.
Just like the real Panda Express Chow Mein, the beauty in this re-creation is its simplicity. There are only seven ingredients, and the prep work is low-impact. I used dry chow mein noodles (also called Chinese stir fry noodles) which are easy to find and cheap, and dark soy sauce to get that great caramel color. And if you don’t have a wok for this, a large skillet with sloped sides for tossing will work just fine.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
You might also like my #1 recipe of 2020, Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce.
Texas Roadhouse RollsRead more
I never thought dinner rolls were something I could get excited about until I got my hand into the breadbasket at Texas Roadhouse. The rolls are fresh out of the oven and they hit the table when you do, so there’s no waiting to tear into a magnificently gooey sweet roll topped with soft cinnamon butter. The first bite you take will make you think of a fresh cinnamon roll, and then you can’t stop eating it. And when the first roll’s gone, you are powerless to resist grabbing for just one more. But it’s never just one more. It’s two or three more, plus a few extra to take home for tomorrow.
Discovering the secret to making rolls at home that taste as good as Texas Roadhouse Rolls involved making numerous batches of dough, each one sweeter than the last (sweetened with sugar, not honey—I checked), until a very sticky batch, proofed for 2 hours, produced exactly what I was looking for. You can make the dough with a stand mixer or a handheld one, the only difference being that you must knead the dough by hand without a stand mixer. When working with the dough add a little bit of flour at a time to keep it from sticking, and just know that the dough will be less sticky and more workable after the first rise.
Roll the dough out and measure it as specified here, and after a final proofing and a quick bake—plus a generous brushing of butter on the tops—you will produce dinner rolls that look and taste just like the best rolls I’ve had at any famous American dinner chain.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
Panda Express Fried RiceRead more
A popular staple of any Chinese chain is fried rice, so it better be good, and the version served at Panda Express most certainly is. Here's my easy Panda Express Fried Rice recipe for when you need a stress-free, low-cost side for your entrées. But I do suggest that you cook the white rice several hours or even a day or two before you plan to make the finished dish. I found that the cooked rice called for in this recipe works best when it's cold.
As for a shortcut, bagged frozen peas and carrots will save you from the hassle of petite-dicing carrots since the carrots in those bags are the perfect size to produce an identical clone. And they're already cooked.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet RollsRead more
A recipe for Portuguese sweet bread inspired the soft rolls that became a big hit at Robert Tiara's Bakery & Restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii in the 1950s. It wasn’t long before Robert changed the name of his thriving business to King’s Hawaiian, and in 1977 the company opened its first bakery on the mainland, in Torrance, California, to make the now-famous island sweet rolls sold in stores across the U.S.
King’s Hawaiian Rolls are similar to Texas Roadhouse Rolls in that they are both pillowy, sweet white rolls, so it made sense to dig out my Texas Roadhouse Rolls clone recipe and use it as a starting point. These new rolls had to be slightly softer and sweeter, so I made some adjustments and added a little egg for color. And by baking the dough in a high-rimmed baking pan with 24 dough balls placed snugly together, I ended up with beautiful rolls that rose nicely to the occasion, forming a tear-apart loaf just like the original King's Hawaiian Rolls, but with clean ingredients, and without the dough conditioners found in the packaged rolls.
Use my King's Hawaiian Sweet Rolls recipe for sandwiches, sliders, or simply warmed up and slathered with soft European butter.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
Pei Wei Wei Better Orange ChickenRead more
This 220-unit downscaled version of P.F. Chang’s China Bistro targets the lunch crowd with a smaller menu that features bento boxes, bowls, and small plates. Obviously, a clone is needed for this one, stat.
The name “Wei Better Orange Chicken” is a competitive callout to Panda Express's signature orange chicken, which is made with pre-breaded and frozen chicken. Pei Wei claims its orange chicken is prepared each day from scratch with chicken that is never frozen, so we’ll craft our clone the same way. But rather than assemble the dish in a wok over a high-flame fast stove like they do at the restaurant, we’ll prepare the sauce and chicken separately, then toss them with fresh orange wedges just before serving.
By the way, Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken goes very well with white or brown rice, so don’t forget to make some.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Chipotle Mexican Grill Carnitas (#5).
Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish PizzaRead more
A requirement of any visit to Chicago is eating at least one slice of deep dish pizza in the city that perfected it. Deep dish pizza quickly became a Chicago staple after Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo opened the first Pizzeria Uno in 1943 and served a hearty new style of pizza constructed in a high-rimmed cake pan. The yeast crust was tender and flakey, like a pastry, and the cheese was layered under the sauce so that it wouldn’t burn in a hot oven for the long cooking time.
While researching a home hack of this now-iconic recipe, I discovered an unexpected technique that I hadn’t seen in other deep dish recipes. Employees told me the pizza crusts are partially cooked each morning to cut down on the wait time for customers. Before the restaurant opens each day, cooks press the dough into a pan and then sprinkle it with a little shredded cheese. The shells are then partially baked and set aside. Later, when an order comes in, the pizza is built into one of the par-baked crusts and finished off. This way customers get their food faster, and the tables turn over quicker.
Copying that delicious, flakey crust was the task that took me the longest. After two weeks of baking, I finally settled on a formula that was a mash-up of yeast dough and pie crust and made a perfectly tender deep dish crust, with great flavor that exactly mimicked the original. If you like Uno, you'll love this!
Regarding the cheese: be sure your cheese is at room temperature, not cold, or it may not melt all the way through. Also, it’s best if you buy cheese by the block and shred it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is dusted with cornstarch so that the shreds don’t stick together in the bag, and it won’t melt as smoothly as cheese you shred by hand.
My Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza recipe will make enough sauce for two pizzas. I just thought you should know that in case you get the urge to make another deep dish after this one disappears.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1) KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
Olive Garden Braised Beef BologneseRead more
Braised Beef Pasta Menu Description: “Slow-simmered meat sauce with tender braised beef and Italian sausage, tossed with ruffled pappardelle pasta and a touch of alfredo sauce—just like Nonna’s recipe.”
It’s a mistake to assume that a recipe posted to a restaurant chain’s website is the real recipe for the food served there. I’ve found this to be the case with many Olive Garden recipes, and this one is no exception. A widely circulated recipe that claims to duplicate the chain’s classic Bolognese actually originated on Olive Garden’s own website, and if you make that recipe you’ll be disappointed when the final product doesn’t even come close to the real deal. I won’t get into all the specifics of the things wrong with that recipe (too much wine, save some of that for drinking!), but at first glance it’s easy to see that a few important ingredients found in traditional Bolognese sauces are conspicuously missing, including milk, basil, lemon, and nutmeg.
I incorporated all those missing ingredients into my Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese recipe, tweaked a few other things, and then tested several methods of braising the beef so that it comes out perfectly tender: covered, uncovered, and a combo. The technique I settled on was cooking the sauce covered for 2 hours, then uncovered for 1 additional hour so that the sauce reduces and the beef transforms into a fork-flakeable flavor bomb. Yes, it comes from Olive Garden, but this Bolognese is better than any I’ve had at restaurants that charge twice as much, like Rao’s where the meat is ground, not braised, and they hit you up for $30.
As a side note, Olive Garden’s menu says the dish comes with ruffled pappardelle pasta, but it’s actually mafaldine, a narrower noodle with curly edges (shown in the top right corner of the photo). Pappardelle, which is the traditional pasta to serve with Bolognese, is a very wide noodle with straight edges, and it’s more familiar than mafaldine, so perhaps that’s why the menu fudges this fact. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which pasta you choose. Just know that a wide noodle works best. Even fettuccine is good here.
For the little bit of alfredo sauce spooned into the middle of the dish, I went with a premade bottled sauce to save time. You can also make this from scratch if you like (I’ve got a great hack for Olive Garden’s Alfredo Sauce), but it’s such a small amount that premade sauce in either a chilled tub from the deli section or in a bottle off the shelf works great here.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1) KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
And browse my other Olive Garden clone recipes here.
Chipotle CarnitasRead more
Braised and shredded pork shoulder is a staple of Mexican cuisine that Chipotle prepares with a simple blend of flavors, and a surprising ingredient you may not have expected: juniper berries. Once you track those down (they’re easy to find online), the berries are combined with thyme and bay leaves in a braising liquid that will transform your own pork roast into an easily shreddable thing of beauty in under 3 hours. Then you can use your Chipotle carnitas clone on tacos, in burritos, or in a bowl over rice and beans just like they do in the restaurant.
When picking your pork roast, try to find one without too much fat. If your roast has a thick cap of fat on it, trim off the excess. You want some fat in your braising liquid, but if the cap of fat is too thick, it may not fully render down and you’ll get chunks of fat in the shred.
It’s often assumed that the pork butt is from the rear end of the pig, even though cuts from the back region already have a name: ham. The pork butt, also known as a Boston butt, is cut from the other end, the upper shoulder of the pig. It’s called a “butt” because in pre-Revolutionary War New England the roasts were stored and transported in barrels called “butts”, and the confusing name stuck.
This recipe was our #5 most popular in 2020. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce (#1), Olive Garden Lasagna Classico (#2), King's Hawaiian Original Hawaiian Sweet Rolls (#3), Pei Wei Better Orange Chicken (#4).
Chipotle Carne AsadaRead more
Chipotle’s popular limited offering is a good example of how straightforward and flavorful carne asada can be. It’s not overly mysterious since Chipotle is transparent about the ingredients used for the restaurant's entire menu—53 ingredients in all—but identifying those is only the beginning of the process. There was still plenty of work to do in establishing ratios and settling on an ideal preparation method.
Carne asada is almost always made with flank steak or skirt steak. A server at Chipotle told me they use skirt steak, which is surprising since that is the tougher of the two cuts. Perhaps she was wrong about that? Flank steak also has a better flavor than skirt steak, so I'm recommending flank here. Just be sure not to marinate it for more than 2 days or the acid in the marinade may toughen your steak and you certainly don't want that.
After you grill it, slice the meat across the grain and use it in burritos, tacos, bowls, or as a Southwest-style salad topper.
My Chipotle carne asada recipe was our #5 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4).
Rao's Traditional MeatballsRead more
Tweaking a classic recipe with a few special prep tricks leaked to me by a server was the key to developing this spot-on hack for the famous meatballs from the iconic 125-year-old Italian dining room. With just two locations in the U.S. (Los Angeles and New York), sinking your fork into a fresh meatball at the restaurant requires quite a trip for most people, but my Rao's Traditional Meatballs recipe, refined through multiple batches, will make you a meatball master in your own kitchen, producing ten 5½-ounce meatballs that look and taste like the real thing.
Fortunately, I could squeeze in a reservation at the Las Vegas Rao’s location a few weeks before it closed its doors forever at Caesar’s Palace in late November 2021. While there, I made sure to ask my server for any information about the recipe, and was informed about the secret two-step process described in this hack to create giant meatballs that are cooked through, but so moist that they practically crumble when cut with a fork.
Rao’s has shared a meatball recipe in the past, but don’t be fooled. That recipe produces decent meatballs, but they are not the same as what’s served in the restaurant. If you want to make meatballs that taste like the classic original, use my Rao's meatballs recipe below.
And when they're done, top the meatballs with your favorite marinara or use my hack here to re-create Rao’s famous sauce.
This recipe was our #1 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Chipotle Pollo Asado (#2), Wendy's Seasoned Potatoes (#3), Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew Chicken (#4), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
You might also like my #1 recipe of 2021, Panda Express Chow Mein.
Panda Express Orange Flavored ChickenRead more
This delicious crispy chicken in a citrusy sweet-and-sour sauce is the most popular dish at the huge Chinese take-out chain. Panda Express cooks all of its food in woks. For my Panda Express Orange Chicken recipe below, you can use a wok, a heavy skillet, or a large sauté pan.
Find more copycat recipes for your favorite Panda Express dishes here.
Source: Even More Top Secret Recipes by Todd Wilbur.
Chipotle Pollo AsadoRead more
In 2022, for the first time in its 29-year history, Chipotle debuted a new style of grilled chicken, and it became an instant hit. At least it was at the Chipotle near me, where the Pollo Asado was ordered more than any other protein, according to servers there. But the new flavor is for a limited-time-only, and when it’s gone, my exclusive Chipotle Pollo Asado recipe may be the only way to satisfy your deep desire.
It appears that Chipotle’s new chicken is marinated in a vacuum meat tumbler similar to the way the Mexican chicken chain El Pollo Loco does it. I sure wish I had one of those awesome tumblers because they speed up and improve the marinating process, producing moist chicken packed with flavor all the way through. But those tumblers are expensive and bulky, and I have absolutely zero space left in my kitchen to store one. So, an overnight marinade, along with a bit of patience, must suffice.
The next day, grill your marinated chicken, chop it up, toss it with the secret citrusy sauce hacked here, add some fresh cilantro and lime juice, then use it as you see fit on burritos, tacos, salads, and bowls.
Try my Chipotle Pollo Asado recipe below and find more of my Chipotle recipes here.
This recipe was our #2 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Traditional Meatballs (#1), Wendy's Seasoned Potatoes (#3), Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew Chicken (#4), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
Auntie Anne's PretzelsRead more
The first Auntie Anne's pretzel store opened in 1988 in the heart of pretzel country—a Pennsylvanian Amish farmers' market. Over 500 stores later, Auntie Anne's is one of the most requested secret clone recipes around, especially on the internet.
Many of the copycat Auntie Anne's soft pretzel recipes passed around the Web require bread flour, and some use honey as a sweetener. But by studying the Auntie Anne's home pretzel-making kit in my secret underground laboratory, I've created a better Auntie Anne's copycat recipe with a superior way to re-create the delicious mall treats at home. For the best quality dough, you just need all-purpose flour. And powdered sugar works great to perfectly sweeten the dough. Now you just have to decide if you want to make the more traditional salted pretzels, or the sweet cinnamon sugar-coated kind. Decisions, decisions.
Find more of my copycat recipes for famous muffins, bagels, and rolls here.
Source: Even More Top Secret Recipes by Todd Wilbur.
Try my improved version in Top Secret Recipes Step-by-Step.
KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (Improved)Read more
To get their Extra Crispy Chicken so crispy, KFC breads the chicken two times. This double breading gives the chicken its ultra craggy exterior and extra crunch, which is a different texture than the less crispy original recipe fried chicken that’s breaded just once and pressure fried.
As with my KFC Original Fried Chicken recipe, we must first brine the chicken to give it flavor and moisture all the way through, like the real thing, then the chicken is double breaded and deep-fried until golden brown. KFC uses small chickens which cook faster, but small chickens can be hard to find. If your chicken parts are on the large side, they may not cook all the way through in the 12 to 15 minutes of frying I’m specifying here. To be sure your chicken is cooked, start frying with the thickest pieces, like the breasts, then park them in a 300-degree oven while you finish with the smaller pieces. This will keep the chicken warm and crispy, and more importantly, ensure that they are cooked perfectly all the way through.
On my CMT show Top Secret Recipe I chatted with Winston Shelton, a long-time friend of KFC founder Harland Sanders. Winston saw the Colonel's handwritten secret recipe for KFC Original Recipe chicken, and he told me one of the secret ingredients is Tellicherry black pepper. It's a more expensive, better-tasting black pepper that comes from the Malabar coast in India, and you should use it here if you can find it. Winston pulled me aside and whispered this secret to me when he thought we were off-camera, but our microphones and very alert cameramen caught the whole thing, and we aired it.
I first published my KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken recipe in Even More Top Secret Recipes, but recently applied some newly acquired secrets and tips to make this much-improved recipe of one of the most familiar fried chicken recipes in the world.
My KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken recipe below was our #2 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4), Bush's Country Style Baked Beans (#5).
P.F. Chang's Mongolian BeefRead more
Menu Description: "Quickly-cooked steak with scallions and garlic."
Beef lovers go crazy over this one at P.F. Chang's. Flank steak is cut into bite-sized chunks against the grain, then it's lightly dusted with potato starch, flash-fried in oil, and doused with an amazing sweet soy garlic sauce. The beef comes out tender as can be, and the simple sauce sings to your taste buds.
I designed my P.F. Chang's Mongolian Beef recipe using a wok, but if you don't have one, a sauté pan will suffice. You may need to add more oil to the pan to cover the beef in the flash-frying step.
P. F. Chang's secret sauce is what makes this dish so good, and it's versatile. If you don't dig beef, you can substitute with chicken. Or you can brush it on grilled salmon.
I've cloned some of the best dishes from P.F. Chang's. Click here to see if I coped your favorite.
Source: Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 2 by Todd Wilbur.
Qdoba 3-Cheese QuesoRead more
There are many acceptable ways to formulate good queso, but to make this specific queso the ingredients must be correct, and most copycat recipes seem to get it wrong. A few recipes get one of the peppers and two of the cheeses right, but pretty much every recipe out there is a bit of a mess that I will now save you from.
Quesos can be made with a variety of cheeses that include queso fresco, asadero, and Muenster, but this particular queso includes a cheese you probably didn’t expect: Swiss. That cheese is slow to melt, so we’ll shred it first, along with the Jack. And you won't need to gum up the queso with flour or cornstarch by making a roux because the white American cheese in the mix contains sodium citrate or sodium phosphate—additives that help the cheese melt smoothly and stay that way.
Authors of recipes that call for tomatoes in this dish haven’t looked closely. Those are red bell peppers and they are roasted, peeled, and seeded along with the poblano and jalapeños before they are diced and added to the cheese sauce. The sauce cooks on low heat, never bubbling, so that it stays smooth and creamy.
When done, your queso might seem thin in the pan, but it will thicken as it cools to a perfect consistency for dipping tortilla chips, or as a topping for tacos and burrito bowls.
My Qdoba 3-cheese queso recipe was our #2 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Outback Baked Potato Soup (#4), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
Benihana Japanese Fried RiceRead more
The talented chefs at Benihana cook food on hibachi grills with flair and charisma, treating the preparation like a tiny stage show. They juggle salt and pepper shakers, trim food with lightning speed, and flip the shrimp and mushrooms perfectly onto serving plates or into their tall chef's hat.
One of the side dishes that everyone seems to love is the fried rice. At Benihana this dish is prepared by chefs with precooked rice on open hibachi grills, and is ordered a la cart to complement any Benihana entrée, including Hibachi Steak and Chicken. I like when the rice is thrown onto the hot hibachi grill and seems to come alive as it sizzles and dances around like a bunch of little jumping beans. Okay, so I'm easily amused.
My Benihana Japanese fried rice recipe will go well with just about any Japanese entrée, and can be partially prepared ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator until the rest of the meal is close to done.
Re-create more of your favorite dishes from Benihana here.
Source: Top Secret Restaurant Recipes by Todd Wilbur.
Applebee's Chicken Wonton TacosRead more
Menu Description: “A deliciously different way to taco. Tangy grilled chicken, sweet Asian chile sauce and dumpling sauce stuffed into crispy wonton shells and topped with a crunchy slaw and cilantro mix.”
Re-creating Applebee's Chicken Wonton Tacos requires cloning four parts; none of which are difficult: Grilled chicken, coleslaw, secret dumpling sauce, and the crispy wonton shell to hold all of it together. For the chicken, we’ll grill a couple of thighs and chop them up. Then we’ll use bottled sweet chili sauce—usually found in your grocery store where Asian foods are parked—to punch up the flavor.
The coleslaw is easy with a dressing that’s only five ingredients. The slaw is best when it has some time to sit and wilt a bit, so plan ahead for the best flavor. You can slice the cabbage yourself, but a coleslaw kit that’s a combo of sliced cabbage and shredded carrots is a big time-saver. Just measure out 4 cups of the cabbage blend and mix it with the minced cilantro and dressing.
Wonton taco shells are not a thing you can usually find in stores, so we’ll make our own using wonton wrappers and a skillet of hot oil. When the oil is hot, add a wonton wrapper and use tongs to fold it over diagonally as it fries until it’s crispy on both sides. It takes less than a minute to fry each wonton taco shell, and you’ll get better at it as you go. Just be sure to leave plenty of room in the taco for the delicious fillings to come.
Try my Applebee's Chicken Wonton Tacos recipe below, and find more copycat recipes from Applebee's here.
Olive Garden Chicken ParmigianaRead more
Menu Description: “Two lightly fried parmesan-breaded chicken breasts are smothered with Olive Garden’s homemade marinara sauce and melted Italian cheeses. We serve our Chicken Parmigiana with a side of spaghetti for dinner.”
Chicken parmigiana is a forever favorite, and it’s not a difficult dish to whip up at home. But for it to taste like the Olive Garden signature entree, we’ll need to take some very specific steps.
Olive Garden’s chicken is salty and moist all the way through, so we must first start by brining the chicken. Give yourself an extra hour for this important marinating step. The marinara sauce used on the chicken is an Olive Garden specialty and no bottled sauce compares, so we’ll make our own from scratch using canned crushed tomatoes and the formula below.
While the sauce cooks, filling your house with its intoxicating aroma, the chicken is breaded and browned. When the marinara is done, top the chicken with the sauce and mozzarella and stick it under your hot broiler until bubbling.
Hopefully, everyone at your house is hungry, because the Olive Garden dinner portion is two chicken fillets, and my Olive Garden Chicken Parmigiana recipe will yield a total of four 2-piece servings. Add a small serving of spaghetti on the side, topped with more of the delicious sauce, and you'll have a perfect match to the restaurant plate.
Can't get enough Olive Garden? Click here for more of your favorite copycat recipes.
Cinnabon Cinnamon RollsRead more
In early 1985, restaurateur Rich Komen felt there was a specialty niche in convenience-food service just waiting to be filled. His idea was to create an efficient outlet that could serve freshly made cinnamon rolls in shopping malls throughout the country. It took nine months for Komen and his staff to develop a cinnamon roll recipe he knew customers would consider the "freshest, gooiest, and most mouthwatering cinnamon roll ever tasted." The concept was tested for the first time in Seattle's Sea-Tac mall later that year, with workers mixing, proofing, rolling, and baking the rolls in full view of customers. Now, more than 626 outlets later, Cinnabon has become the fastest-growing cinnamon roll bakery in the world.
Make delicious homemade Cinnabon Cinnamon Rolls at home with my recipe below, or try my improved recipe here, which I perfected with the help of Cinnabon HQ.
Source: More Top Secret Recipes by Todd Wilbur.
Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin MedallionsRead more
For many years this entrée has been a top menu choice at Maggiano's, the 54-unit Italian chain from Brinker, the same company that operates Chili’s Grill & Bar. The $30 restaurant dish consists of three 2½-ounce tenderloin steaks, swimming in a fantastic balsamic cream sauce with sliced portabello mushrooms—but a home version of Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin Medallions is only seven easy steps away, and it won't hit you in the wallet as hard as the pricey original.
Cracking this dish required a perfect hack of the sauce, and that came quickly after obtaining some very reliable information from my incredibly helpful server/informant at a Las Vegas Maggiano’s. Let’s call him Skippy.
According to Skippy, the balsamic cream sauce is as simple as mixing a sweet balsamic glaze with the chain’s creamy Alfredo sauce. So, I first got a sample of Maggiano’s Alfredo sauce and figured out how to replicate it. Once that was done, I measured increments of balsamic glaze into the Alfredo sauce until the color and flavor matched the original. The rest of the recipe was easy.
This recipe will make two servings of the Maggiano's Beef Tenderloin Medallions and includes preparation for the tenderloins and sauce. If you’d like to complete the dish the way it’s served at the restaurant (as in the photo), add some garlic mashed potatoes on the side, using my hack for Olive Garden Garlic Mashed Potatoes.
Olive Garden BreadsticksRead more
Anyone who loves Olive Garden is probably also a big fan of the bottomless basket of warm, garlicky breadsticks served before each meal at the huge Italian casual chain. My guess is that the breadsticks are proofed, and then sent to each restaurant where they are baked until golden brown, brushed with butter and sprinkled with garlic salt. Getting the bread just right for a good Olive Garden breadstick recipe was tricky—I tried several different amounts of yeast in all-purpose flour, but then settled on bread flour to give these breadsticks the same chewy bite as the originals. The two-stage rising process is also a crucial step in this much requested homemade Olive Garden breadstick recipe.
Complete the bottomless experience with my Olive Garden Italian salad dressing recipe.
Source: Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 3 by Todd Wilbur.
Olive Garden Five Cheese Ziti al FornoRead more
Menu Description: “A baked blend of Italian cheeses, pasta, and our signature five-cheese marinara.”
Creating a recipe for Olive Garden’s famous baked ziti would not be possible without a perfect clone of the chain’s popular five-cheese marinara sauce. I started with my previous recipe of the plain marinara for Olive Garden’s Chicken Parmigiana and enhanced it with the addition of five kinds of Italian cheese and heavy cream.
Determining which five types of cheese are in a prepared sauce is tough without some insider assistance, so before cooking I focused my efforts on convincing a server to ask the chef for the list…and I got it! The blend of cheese used here in the sauce comes straight from the kitchen of my local Olive Garden. When you taste it, you’ll know the intel was legit.
After the sauce is added to the pasta it’s topped with a cheese-and-breadcrumb mix called “ziti topping,” then it’s browned under a salamander (for the restaurant version) or a broiler (for your version). The result is a beautiful dish with great sauce and a cheesy topping that should satisfy even the pickiest baked ziti fanatics.
I've cloned a ton of dishes from Olive Garden. See if I hacked your favorite here.
Pizza Hut Meaty Marinara PastaRead more
One of two pasta dishes currently on the pizza giant’s menu, the Meaty Marinara Pasta was first introduced in a 2008 April Fool’s publicity stunt when Pizza Hut claimed it was changing its name to “Pasta Hut.” No one fell for the prank but they did fall for the pasta, and that's why the Tuscani Creamy Chicken Alfredo Pasta and Meaty Marinara Pasta have been on the menu ever since. The sauce is the big secret here; it's simple and classic, but customized to produce a marinara with that distinct Pizza Hut taste. And the recipe will make more than enough pasta to go around.
My Pizza Hut Meaty Marinara Pasta recipe is an easy one. After browning the seasoned beef, you add it to the sauce, simmer the sauce until thick, then spread it over one pound of rotini pasta in a baking dish in two layers so that every bite is filled with flavor. Sprinkle shredded mozzarella over the top and melt it until golden brown under your broiler. Boom! No one can resist. You rule.
This simple and inexpensive meal will feed eight, and leftovers keep well in the fridge for a couple of days.
Find more of my Pizza Hut recipes here.
Outback Steakhouse Baked Potato SoupRead more
Menu Description: “Creamy potato soup topped with melted cheese, bacon, and green onions.”
It’s not called baked potato soup because the potatoes in it are baked. It’s called baked potato soup because it’s topped with shredded cheese, bacon, and green onion, and it tastes like a loaded baked potato. Other hacky hacks for this recipe miss that point and add over an hour to the preparation process by preheating an oven and baking the potatoes, all while hungry stomachs are growling on the sidelines. My version skips that part by adding the raw potatoes directly into the pot with the other ingredients, where they cook in 20 minutes, and the soup is ready to eat in less time than other recipes take just to get the potatoes done.
Also, other clones add way too much flour to thicken the soup—¾ cup! Sure, flour is good at thickening, but it doesn’t add any flavor, so I found a better way. I ended up using just a little flour to make the roux, then later thickening the soup mostly with dehydrated potato flakes, which are used to make quick mashed potatoes. The flakes not only do a great job of thickening the soup, but they also add more delicious potato flavor to the pot, just like the real Outback Baked Potato Soup.
Top your finished soup with shredded cheese, crumbled bacon, and green onion, and every spoonful will taste like a fully decked-out baked potato.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2021. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Panda Express Chow Mein (#1), Qdoba 3-Cheese Queso (#2), Panda Express Fried Rice (#3), Chipotle Carne Asada (#5).
Jimmy Dean Breakfast SausageRead more
Before he became America's sausage king, Jimmy Dean was known for crooning the country hit "Big Bad John." That song came out in 1962 and sold more than 8 million copies. His singing success launched a television career on ABC with The Jimmy Dean Show, where Roy Clark, Patsy Cline, and Roger Miller got their big breaks. The TV exposure led to acting roles for Jimmy, as a regular on Daniel Boone, and in feature films, including his debut in the James Bond flick Diamonds are Forever. Realizing that steady income from an acting and singing career can be undependable, Jimmy invested his show-biz money in a hog farm. In 1968 the Jimmy Dean Meat Company developed the special recipe for sausage that has now become a household name. Today the company is part of the Sara Lee Corporation, and Jimmy retired as company spokesman in 2004.
My Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage recipe re-creates three varieties of the famous roll sausage that you form into patties and cook in a skillet. Use ground pork found at the supermarket—make it lean pork if you like—or grind some up yourself if you have a meat grinder.
Check out more of my famous breakfast food clone recipes here.
Source: Top Secret Recipes Unlocked by Todd Wilbur.
McDonald's Chicken McNuggetsRead more
When dippable tempura-battered chicken chunks made their debut at select McDonald’s restaurants in 1981, America couldn’t get enough…literally. Supply chain issues prevented the burger chain from meeting high demand in all markets for many months, and it wasn’t until two years after the McNuggets were first introduced that they were finally available at every McDonald’s in the country.
The famous finger food was invented by McDonald’s first executive chef, Rene Arend, who discovered that reconstituted chicken blended with flavor enhancers, enrobed with tempura batter, and deep-fried until golden brown, made a simple, portable snack. The chicken was formed into four “B” shapes designed for dipping—the bell, the bow-tie, the ball, and the boot—and served along with child-friendly dipping sauces such as ranch and barbecue, so the breakout finger food product became a huge winner with kids.
To make a home version that looks and tastes like McNuggets I dissected a real one and discovered that the chicken in the middle is coated twice: once with dry, seasoned breading, and then once more with wet batter before frying. The chicken in McNuggets is puréed not ground, and the best way to prepare it is with a food processor. “Ground” chicken in grocery stores is often puréed, then pushed through a die to look more appealing in the package, similar to how ground beef is presented. For my Chicken McNugget recipe below, it's best to use a home food processor, but if you don’t have one, ground chicken from your butcher will work.
If I had to identify a secret ingredient in this hack it would be Knorr chicken bouillon powder. It contains many of the same ingredients found in real Chicken McNuggets, so once you get that crucial flavoring component, you’re well on your way to an amazing knockoff of an iconic American food.
This recipe was our #5 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Traditional Meatballs (#1), Chipotle Pollo Asado (#2), Wendy's Seasoned Potatoes (#3), Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew Chicken (#4).
Wendy's Seasoned PotatoesRead more
Reviewers of Wendy’s tasty seasoned potatoes point out that the skin-on slices stay crispy even when cool. That tells us the breading is most likely made with a non-wheat flour blend, an assumption confirmed by the website ingredients list for the potatoes where nary a gram of wheat flour is included. Yep, these seasoned potatoes are gluten-free.
Wendy’s uses a blend of food starches plus rice flour for the breading on their version, but my tests confirmed that cornstarch is all you’ll need for a great clone of Wendy's seasoned potatoes. The secret process starts by coating the potato slices with the dry breading mix, which contains salt. The salt in the blend will draw water out of the potatoes, magically transforming the dry breading into a wet batter in about 20 minutes.
When all the breading is wet, the potatoes go into the oil for partial frying. After resting a bit, they get dropped in again until golden brown and crispy. And, thanks to the cornstarch, these potatoes will stay crispy, even when they’re completely cool. Pretty cool right? Give my Wendy's seasoned potatoes recipe a try.
This recipe was our #3 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Traditional Meatballs (#1), Chipotle Pollo Asado (#2), Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew Chicken (#4), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
Cracker Barrel MeatloafRead more
The Southern-themed chain famous for its gift shops filled with made-in-America products and delicious homestyle food is also known to have a particularly good meatloaf. This dish ranks high in popularity, right up there with the Chicken ‘n Dumplins and the Hash Brown Casserole, so a good Cracker Barrel Meatloaf recipe is long overdue.
Making meatloaf is easy. What’s hard is making it taste like the meatloaf at Cracker Barrel which is tender and juicy, and flavored with onion, green pepper, and tomato. I sought to turn out a moist and tender loaf of meat, and one that’s not dry and tough, but my first attempts were much too dense. I wasn’t happy about that, but my dog was thrilled.
After playing around with the eggs-to-breadcrumbs-to-milk ratios and being careful to use gentle hands when combining everything and pressing it into the loaf pan, the final batch was a winner and I get to pass it along to you.
It's best to use a meatloaf pan here which has an insert that lets the fat drip to the bottom, away from the meat. A regular loaf pan will still work, but you’ll want to pour off the fat in the pan before slicing.
Satisfy your Cracker Barrel cravings with more of my copycat recipes here.
Thomas' English MuffinsRead more
Samuel Bath Thomas immigrated from England to New York City and opened his first bakery there in 1880. That is where Thomas created skillet bread that would one day become the famous muffins known for their craggy texture when split in half. This hack for Thomas’ English Muffins uses a special kneading process to give the muffins the "nooks and crannies" they are famous for, making craters in the finished bread to better hold on to melted butter and jam.
I have seen several recipes that claim to re-create these muffins, but none produce the large air pockets that a proper Thomas' English Muffin recipe requires, in addition to great flavor and a perfectly cooked interior. To ensure proper nooks and crannies and muffins that are cooked all the way through, I've included some important steps.
The dough you'll make here is like a ciabatta dough in that it is very wet. So rather than kneading the dough, you stretch and fold it over several times on a well-oiled surface. Then, when the portioned-out dough has proofed on baking sheets for another 1½ to 2 hours, you par-bake the muffins.
After baking, the muffins are cooked on a griddle or in a pan until dark brown on both sides, then they must cool. This is the hardest part. The muffins will be too soft to open for at least four hours, and now you have to fight off the temptation to eat one. It’s hard, I know. The muffins smell great and you’ve waited all this time, but resist for now and your patience will be rewarded.
When the muffins have had their rest, split them with a fork and toast them as you would any English muffin.
Check out all my top secret recipes for famous bread here.
Bush's Country Style Baked BeansRead more
In the Bush’s Beans commercials, Duke, the family golden retriever, wants to sell the secret family recipe, but the Bush family always stops him. The dog is based on the Bush family’s real-life golden retriever, and the campaign, which began in 1995, made Bush’s the big dog of the canned baked beans market practically overnight. Their confidential baked beans formula is considered one of the top 10 biggest recipe secrets in the U.S.
Bush Brothers & Company had been canning a variety of fruits and vegetables for over 60 years when, in 1969, the company created canned baked beans using a cherished recipe from a family matriarch. Sales jumped from 10 thousand cases in the first year to over 100 thousand cases in 1970. And just one year later sales hit a million cases. Today Bush’s makes over 80 percent of the canned baked beans sold in the U.S., and the secret family recipe remains a top food secret, despite Duke’s attempts. A replica of the original recipe book—without the original recipe in it (drat!)—is on display at the company's visitor center in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee.
I chose to hack the “Country Style” version of Bush’s Beans because I don’t think the Original flavor has enough, uh, flavor. Country Style is similar to Original, but richer, with more brown sugar. My recipe for Bush's Country Style baked beans starts by soaking dry small white beans in a brine overnight. The salt in the water helps to soften the skins, but don’t soak them for more than 14 hours or the skins may begin to fall off. You can skip this step if you've got a fancy Instant Pot using my directions below.
My first versions tasted great but lacked the deep brown color of the real Bush’s beans, which include caramel coloring—an ingredient that can be hard to find on its own. I eventually discovered that the “browning” sauce, Kitchen Bouquet, will add the dark caramel color needed to our home version of the beans so that they’ll look just like the real thing.
This recipe was our #5 most popular in 2019. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes of the year: Texas Roadhouse Rolls (#1) KFC Extra Crispy Fried Chicken (#2), Olive Garden Braised Beef Bolognese (#3), Pizzeria Uno Chicago Deep Dish Pizza (#4).
KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) Potato WedgesRead more
“Don’t call them fries,” says KFC about its popular side made with sliced, skin-on russet potatoes. What sets these potatoes apart from all the others is the secret breading made with a similar seasoning blend to the one used for Colonel's Original Recipe Fried Chicken. To achieve the proper crispiness, the potatoes are par-fried, frozen, then fried again until golden brown.
One important ingredient that completes the flavor is MSG. Monosodium glutamate is a food additive derived from glutamic acid, which is an important amino acid found in abundance in nature, food, and in you right now. Over the last 60 years of study and use, MSG has not only been found harmless in normal amounts, but tests have shown glutamate to be a chemical messenger that benefits gut health, immunity, and brain functions such as memory and learning. In addition to all of that, it imparts a unique savoriness that enhances flavors in other ingredients and makes your food taste amazing. Using MSG in your food is, literally, smart cooking.
Another important ingredient is ground Tellicherry black pepper, a select black pepper from India. Winston Shelton, a friend of Harland Sanders who invented the first high-volume pressure fryers for KFC, confirmed this. Shelton recalled seeing the ingredient when Sanders showed him the secret formula for the fried chicken seasoning he had scribbled on a piece of paper.
While we were shooting the first episode of my TV Show, Top Secret Recipe, Winston pulled me aside and whispered to me that Tellicherry pepper is crucial to creating the unique KFC aftertaste. It was a great tip, and fortunately, we caught that moment on camera and you can see it in the show. Later, I conducted a side-by-side taste test with common black pepper and Tellicherry black pepper and discovered Winston was right. If you want the best taste for your copycat KFC Potato Wedges, you'll need Tellicherry pepper, which you can find online and in some food stores. Be sure to grind it fine before using it.
For my KFC Potato Wedges recipe, just two russet potatoes are all it takes to make the equivalent of a large serving of fried potato wedges, which will be enough for at least four people.
Taco Bell Shredded Chicken Soft TacoRead more
In November 2020, Taco Bell said “adios” to several classic items from their menu including Mexican Pizza—one of my long-time favorites—and anything with shredded chicken in it, including the chicken soft taco. But teary goodbyes from fans of the tasty spiced chicken can be avoided if we have a good (and easy) recipe to craft a duplicate at home. Since the fast Mexican chain announced the changes several months in advance, I had time to work up a good hack before the tacos were gone forever.
After cooking the chicken several ways, I settled on poaching the fillets in chicken broth, which kept them moist and added great umami flavor. When the chicken cooled, I shredded it, and added it to a sauce seasoned with spices and lime juice, and flavored with Knorr tomato chicken bouillon.
As the sauce thickens it will reduce and infuse the chicken with flavor, just like the original Taco Bell shredded chicken, then it’s ready for you to use on tacos, burritos, salads, or whatever. And don't forget the hot sauce!
California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) Butter CakeRead more
Imagine a giant soft sugar cookie with sweetened cream cheese on top and served warm as if it just came out of the oven, and you have California Pizza Kitchen's Butter Cake, a delectable dessert described on the menu with five simple words: “Trust us…just try it.”
This dessert is an easy one to prep in the restaurant since the cakes are made ahead of time and chilled until ordered. Once an order comes in the cake is zapped for a minute in the microwave, then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and surrounded by dollops of whipped cream. I've designed my CPK Butter Cake recipe below the same way, so you can make your cakes in advance then chill them until dessert time. Or, you can serve the cakes right after they come out of the oven. Either way works.
The construction is an easy one—you’ll need four 4-inch cake pans, or ramekins, or anything you can bake in that is 4-inches across. To make the batter I used a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and it worked great, but a hand-held granny mixer also works.
I think you're gonna love this one. Trust me.
Find more amazing CPK copycat recipes here.
Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew ChickenRead more
This popular chain wrangles a wide variety of dishes and cooking styles day after day with consistently high quality. From pasta to burgers to tacos, from salads to pancakes to beautiful cheesecakes for dessert, there is something for everyone at the Cheesecake Factory.
The thorough menu's Asia-inspired plates include Thai, Korean, and Chinese dishes, but one that consistently stands out is this excellent Mandarin-style spicy chicken entrée, served over your choice of white or brown rice.
The secret of the great flavor is in the sauce, which has now been hacked for you in my Cheesecake Factory Spicy Cashew recipe below. Plus, I’ll walk you through the process of creating perfect crispy chicken from scratch using juicy chicken tenderloins.
If you’d like to save time, you can bake up some pre-cooked breaded chicken tenders and focus all your efforts on the amazing sauce. Tips on that shortcut can be found below in the Tidbits.
This recipe was our #4 most popular in 2022. Check out the other four most unlocked recipes for the year: Rao's Traditional Meatballs (#1), Chipotle Pollo Asado (#2), Wendy's Seasoned Potatoes (#3), McDonald's Chicken McNuggets (#5).
Panda Express Beijing BeefRead more
The problem with adding sauce to fried food is that the wet sauce makes the crunchy fried food not so crunchy. Panda Express manages to keep the crispy beef in Beijing Beef crispy even though it may be sitting for over 20 minutes in the sauce on its way to a hungry you. My early attempts at hacking my favorite dish at the massive Chinese food chain all resulted in gummy, soggy beef pieces that were more like flat dumplings than the delicious, crunchy strips of joy they were meant to be.
Then finally, on one batch, I decided to fry the coated beef for much longer than I intuitively felt it should be cooked, resulting in dark browning on the cornstarch coating and an even darker piece of meat beneath it. I anticipated a beef jerky experience, but when I took a bite, I found it to be delicious! It wasn’t tough and chewy as I expected it to be. And when this seemingly overcooked beef was stirred into the sauce, it stayed crispy until served, just like the real thing. Now, with the soggy beef problem solved, we’ve finally got a good hack for Panda Express Beijing Beef.
El Pollo Loco Flame-Broiled ChickenRead more
El Pollo Loco, or "The Crazy Chicken," has been growing like mad since it crossed over the border into the United States from Mexico. Francisco Ochoa unknowingly started a food phenomenon internacional in 1975 when he took a family recipe for chicken marinade and opened a small roadside restaurante in Gusave, Mexico. He soon had 90 stores in 20 cities throughout Mexico. The first El Pollo Loco in the United States opened in Los Angeles in December 1980 and was an immediate success. It was only three years later that Ochoa got the attention of bigwigs at Dennys, Inc., who offered him $11.3 million for his U.S. operations. Ochoa took the deal, and El Pollo Loco grew from 17 to more than 200 outlets over the following decade.
Pair my El Pollo Loco Flame Broiled Chicken recipe below with my copycat recipes for El Pollo Loco avocado salsa, pinto beans, Spanish rice, and bbq black beans.
Source: More Top Secret Recipes by Todd Wilbur.
Shakey's Mojo PotatoesRead more
Sherwood Johnson survived a case of malaria while serving in World War II, which left him with some residual nerve damage and a new nickname: Shakey. Despite his affliction, Shakey Johnson was still able to bang out toe-tapping Dixieland jazz on the piano night after night in the pizza parlor he opened in Sacramento in 1954, where live jazz accompanied the thin crust pizza and cold pitchers of beer.
Shakey’s became the first franchised pizza restaurant in the U.S., and by 1974 the chain had 500 stores across the U.S. The #1 dish is clearly the made-to-order pizza, but the chain’s trademarked crispy battered potato slices are a close runner-up and a perfect tasty subject to hack.
Recipes that claim complete pancake mix is the secret breading ingredient in Mojo Potatoes fail to observe that pancake mix contains sugar, and there is no noticeable sweetness in the breading of the Mojos. I also decided that dry breading wouldn't work since in my tests the paprika failed to bloom and give the coating a perfect hue like it does when the mixture is wet.
I eventually settled on a simple wet batter made with seasoned salt, flour, and little cornstarch for crunch to best match the flavor, crispiness, and red/orange tint of the real thing from America’s first pizza chain. Use this original technique, and these handy step photos, to make extra crispy potatoes the Shakey's way.
There's your appetizer, now what's for dinner? Find clones for some of your favorite famous entrées here.
Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken MarsalaRead more
Menu Description: “Creamy marsala wine sauce with mushrooms over grilled chicken breasts, stuffed with Italian cheeses and sundried tomatoes. Served with garlic mashed potatoes.”
My Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken Marsala recipe includes a marsala sauce that even marsala sauce haters will like. My wife is one of those haters, but when she tried this sauce, her eyes lit up, and she begged for more. That’s great, now I won’t have to eat alone.
Not only is Olive Garden's delicious marsala sauce hacked here (and it’s easy to make), you’ll also get the copycat recipe for the chain's awesome Italian cheese stuffing that goes between the two pan-cooked chicken fillets. Build it, sauce it, serve it. The presentation is awesome, and the flavor will soothe your soul.
Try this dish paired with my recent clone of Olive Garden’s Garlic Mashed Potatoes for the complete Olive Garden Stuffed Chicken Marsala experience.
Hooters Buffalo Chicken Wings (Improved)Read more
Menu Description: "The one and only! The style we invented over 30 years ago; they're breaded by hand, tossed in your choice of wing sauce and served by your favorite Hooters girl."
When I first hacked this recipe back in 1997 for the book Top Secret Restaurant Recipes, Hooters wings looked different than they do today. The chain used to leave the pointy end of the wing attached to the middle piece, or “flat,” which, frankly, is unnecessary because there is very little meat on the tip segment. Today the chain serves wings like everyone else, with drumettes and flats completely separated, and delivered by waitresses in the same bright orange shorts as when the chain started in 1983.
One thing that wasn't available to me back then was the opportunity to examine the chain’s packaging for the lists of ingredients on signature items like sauces and breading. Today, since they sell these items as retail products, I can take advantage of labeling laws that require ingredients to be clearly listed and see what really goes into these recipes. Using that new information, I’ve made a few small tweaks to improve my Hooters Wings recipe from over 20 years ago, including two versions of the kickass wing sauce—medium and hot—for your wing-devouring pleasure.
Find more of my Hooters copycat recipes here.
Benihana Hibachi Chicken and SteakRead more
When 20-year old Rocky Aoki came to New York City from Japan with his wrestling team in 1959 he was convinced it was the land of opportunity. Just five years later he used $10,000 he had saved plus another $20,000 that he borrowed to open a Benihana steakhouse on the West Side of Manhattan. His concept of bringing the chefs out from the back of the kitchen to prepare the food in front of customers on a specially designed hibachi grill was groundbreaking. The restaurant was such a smashing success that it paid for itself within 6 months.
The most popular items at the restaurant are the Hibachi Chicken and Hibachi Steak, which are prepared at your table on an open hibachi grill. But, since most home kitchens are not fitted with a hibachi grill, you'll have to improvise. It's best to use two pans for my Benihana hibachi chicken and steak recipe below; one for the meat and mushrooms, and the other for the remaining vegetables. And since many of today's cooking surfaces are coated with scratchable, nonstick coatings, we won't be slicing the meat and vegetables while they are sizzling on the hot cooking surface as the Benihana chefs do.
Grab my clone recipes for the Ginger and Mustard Dipping Sauces here!
Source: Top Secret Restaurant Recipes by Todd Wilbur.
Chick-fil-A Spicy Deluxe Chicken SandwichRead more
This chain’s not-spicy original chicken sandwich which debuted in 1964 was the first chicken sandwich introduced to America by a fast food chain, and it put Chick-fil-A on the map. By diversifying the menu with new products such as this kicked-up version of the famous sandwich, the chain grew over the years to become the #1 chicken restaurant in the nation, and this sandwich is now one of the most popular picks on the menu board.
The secrets for a good clone of the Chick-fil-A Spicy Deluxe Chicken Sandwich lie in the brine and the breading. I recently obtained some insider intel confirming the long-standing rumor that pickle juice is the brine. I hadn’t called for it in my prior Chick-fil-A clones because the listed ingredients for the sandwich didn’t include it. I’m not sure why that is, but my latest test versions with the pickle juice were noticeably better, so now it’s in there. You should also know that MSG is an important ingredient in both the brine and breading, so don’t leave that out if you want the best clone.
Use this special trick to get three perfect sandwich-size cutlets out of each chicken breast, and then give the chicken a nice 4-hour brine. Your patience will be rewarded with one of the best chicken sandwich hacks to come out of a home kitchen.
Now, check out my version of Chick-fil-A Mac and Cheese!
Chipotle Queso BlancoRead more
Social media shredded Chipotle’s first queso dip which debuted in 2017, calling it “gritty,” “bland,” “watered-down,” and “a crime against cheese.” Chipotle was in desperate need of a re-do.
In early 2020, after months and months of test-marketing an improved cheesy dip recipe in Dallas, Detroit, and San Diego, the Mexican chain introduced Queso Blanco to the entire U.S., and this time the reviews were much better.
Chipotle claims their new formula contains exactly 13 ingredients, including 2 kinds of cheese and 3 different chile peppers. With cornstarch as the thickening agent, the preparation starts by making a white sauce with milk and cream. When the cheese is fully melted and smooth, the veggies go in, and in about 10 minutes it’s ready to serve.
Use my Chipotle Queso Blanco copycat recipe as a dip with tortilla chips or as a topping on your copycat Chipotle carne asada or carnitas tacos and barbacoa burritos. Find all my Chipotle recipes here.
Taco Bell Chalupa SupremeRead more
I’m not sure when it happened, but it appears Taco Bell recently changed its seasoned beef recipe. I hacked the recipe several years ago for the book TSR Step-by-Step, and I recall the recipe had much more oat filler, so that’s how I cloned it. Taco Bell came under fire in 2011 for the significant amount of oats in the recipe that the chain was listing as “spices,” and after that, Taco Bell was more transparent about ingredients. But somewhere along the way it appears the company tweaked the recipe to include less filler and more flavor, so I decided I had to create a new Taco Bell seasoned beef copycat recipe.
You can use my recipe below to make the famous Chalupa—which the restaurant makes by deep-frying the flatbread used for Gorditas. You can also use this new, improved Taco Bell seasoned beef recipe for anything you’re copying, whether it's tacos, burritos, Enchiritos, Mexican Pizzas, or a big pile of nachos.
The secret ingredient in our hack is Knorr tomato bouillon. This flavor powder adds many ingredients found in the original recipe and provides the umami savoriness that’s required for a spot-on clone of the famous seasoned ground beef. To get the right flavor, you need to find "Knorr Tomato Bouillon with Chicken Flavor" powder, in a jar. Not the bouillon cubes.
Try my Taco Bell Chalupa Supreme recipe below, and find copycat recipes for Taco Bell mild, hot or diablo sauce here.
Panda Express Mandarin (Bourbon) ChickenRead more
Here's a dish from a rapidly growing Chinese food chain that should satisfy anyone who loves the famous marinated bourbon chicken found in food courts across America. The sauce is the whole thing here, and it's quick to make using my Panda Express Mandarin Chicken recipe below. You'll make the sauce right on your stove-top, then fire up the barbecue or indoor grill for the chicken. Then, whip up a little white rice to serve on the side.
Panda Express - now 370 restaurants strong - is the fastest-growing Asian food chain in the world. You'll find these tasty little quick-service food outlets in supermarkets, casinos, sports arenas, college campuses, and malls across the country passing out free samples for the asking.
You might also want try my Panda Express Honey Walnut Shrimp Recipe.
Source: "Even More Top Secret Recipes" by Todd Wilbur.
Kobe Ichiban Japanese Steakhouse Shrimp (Yum Yum) SauceRead more
For years, I’ve been hearing about a delicious seafood dipping sauce at Japanese steakhouses called "shrimp sauce" or "yum yum sauce." Research revealed many independent Japanese steakhouses with "the best sauce," but it was the name of an 11-unit chain called Kobe Ichiban in Central Florida that came up most often.
When I next found myself in Orlando, Florida presenting some cooking demos at a home show, I dropped in on Kobe Ichiban for dinner and there it was: the light orange creamy dipping "yummy" sauce that everyone was raving about. It was sweet and sour and salty and creamy, and it tasted amazing on the shrimp—as well as on everything else.
I poured some into some small plastic storage bags I had with me (always come prepared!), then popped them into a cooler for the long trip back to Las Vegas, where, in the underground lab, a clone for this much-requested delicious dipping sauce was finally completed. Now, you can enjoy homemade Yum Yum Sauce anytime.
Find more of my copycat recipes for famous sauces here.
For over 30 years I've been deconstructing America's most iconic brand-name foods to make the best original copycat recipes for you to use at home. Welcome to my lab.
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