Although many of us are turning to takeout for comfort during these trying times, we’ve all had that disappointing moment of really bad to-go food. A container that holds once-crisp french fries, now steamed and soggy. Or dishes that should be eaten piping hot arriving lukewarm, or worst yet, cold and congealed. Nosh consulted with East Bay chefs and restaurateurs to learn how to make the most of the takeout experience.
Kristen Davis, owner of KC’s BBQ in Berkeley, does a brisk takeout business. Her number one tip: “Get to the restaurant just as the food is being boxed up and get home fast.” The longer the wait before consuming the food, the more likely it will lose its flavor.
Another suggestion: “If you can, keep your car heater on. It will act as a warmer on the way home,” Davis said. Obviously, this only applies to hot foods. If you can, transport items like cold drinks in a separate container.
Sadly, neither Davis nor any of the other restaurateurs surveyed had a hack for keeping fries crispy.
“Keep your boxes or bags open and enjoy your fries on the way home.”
“Fries are not something we specialize in, but I do know when anybody makes fries, generally they are best when they are hot out of the fire,” Davis said. “When they are put in bags or boxes, they are hot and continue to steam,” causing the dreaded soggy effect.
“The easiest way is to keep your boxes or bags open and enjoy your fries on the way home,” Davis said.
Pork ribs are KC’s BBQ’s most popular items. Happily, these and the restaurant’s handcrafted sausage links, made fresh every day, do not suffer during transport, Davis said. The same is true of the barbeque chicken, she said.
Some historians speculate that the burrito was created by vaqueros in northern Mexico who rode the trails all day and needed something durable and filling. Now it’s riding to the rescue of East Bay residents sheltering in place during the pandemic, said John Paluska, owner of Comal, the fine-dining restaurant in downtown Berkeley, and Comal Next Door, its fast-casual sister taqueria.
Paluska described the burrito as “probably the ultimate takeout food, just because you have a wrapper inside foil. I sometimes take burritos home and heat them a couple of hours later. They usually reheat well if you throw them in a cast-iron pan and crisp them up a bit.”
Comal Next Door sells probably more burritos than any other item for takeout and delivery, Paluska said. Its companion restaurant, the upscale Comal, has a different menu, with family meals including enchiladas, carne asada and whole roasted chicken.
While Comal Next Door always offered takeout, the new format was more of a pivot for Comal, Paluska said. Other fine-dining establishments have found the transition to be a challenge as well.
“Takeout is a very different thing from sit-in dining. It takes a lot of care and work.”
Juanita & Maude, a destination restaurant in Albany known for creative dishes conceived by Scott Eastman, former chef de cuisine at Berkeley’s Corso, began offering takeout about a month ago.
“Takeout is a very different thing from sit-in dining. It takes a lot of care and work,” Eastman said.
Eastman and his wife Ariane Owens, the restaurant’s co-owner, tested their offerings extensively before launching their takeout menu.
“A steak or even a delicate piece of food will go flat in an hour,” Eastman said.
“It all had to pass the test, ‘If I ate this an hour later, would it still be good?’”
The duo settled on takeout staples including burgers, wood-fired pizza and buttermilk fried chicken with braised collard greens, mashed potatoes and gravy, though the menu varies based on what’s available.
“It all had to pass the test, ‘If I ate this an hour later, would it still be good?’” the chef said.
“The thing that’s really tough now, too, is because the general demand is a fraction of what it was before, we’re having to keep a small inventory and have a small menu to ensure that our takeout is really fresh,” Eastman said.
It hasn’t been easy for restaurateurs like Eastman since the lockdown began. Limiting restaurants to takeout or delivery to minimize the threat of COVID-19 nearly decimated the state’s restaurant 90,000 restaurants, most of which are owned by independent proprietors living in the communities they serve and 60% of which are owned by people of color.
Tashi Delek, an El Cerrito restaurant featuring Tibetan, Indian and Nepali food, has a number of popular menu takeout items. Palak paneer, or spinach with cheese cubes, comes with dal and rice and is a favorite.
Another takeout staple: vegetarian, lamb, chicken or beef momos, a steamed dumpling popular in Nepal, Sikkim and Tibet.
“Naan also is a good takeout item,” said Phurba Sherpa, Tashi Delek’s chef. The restaurant has a variety of naan, including garlic and rosemary.
Tacos El Tucán, which opened in November on San Pablo Avenue in Richmond, has always centered on takeout, though there is a small dining area — still closed, for now. Long lines formed outside the restaurant practically from opening day, with the specialty, the quesataco, starring on the menu. Tucán’s quesataco features Monterey jack cheese crisped on a flat top, and lends itself well to takeout.
Also, “our mulitas set us apart,” said Alfredo Padilla, El Tucán’s owner. He described the mulitas as two handmade tortillas with melted cheese, meat, cilantro and guacamole in the middle. “These are very popular in Tijuana.”
Pretty much everything on the menu will survive a trip from El Tucán to your home with aplomb, Padilla said. As with other restaurants, Padilla said the pandemic has cut into his business, but there was a line outside the door on a recent Wednesday.
“We have a great turnout of people,” Padilla said. “People are still here supporting us. It’s not 100% the same, but we are busy.”
KC’s BBQ, 1235 San Pablo Ave. (between Harrison and Gilman), Berkeley; Comal and Comal Next Door, 2020 and 2024 Shattuck Ave., (near University Avenue), Berkeley; Juanita & Maude, 825 San Pablo Ave. (between Solano and Washington), Albany; Tashi Delek, 11224 San Pablo Ave. (near Potrero Avenue), El Cerrito; Tacos El Tucán, 12505 San Pablo Ave. (at Clinton Avenue), Richmond