I’m back. I hope you’ve missed me as much as I’ve missed you.
I haven’t written anything since the lockdown started nineteen years ago. There hasn’t been a lot to report. My cooking skills have been reinvigorated. I can serve chicken thighs more ways than George Washington Carver served peanuts. But sometimes all I can scrounge up is some shriveled eggplant and breakfast sausages and getting dinner on the table feels like a low-rent episode of Chopped — with a more critical panel of judges explaining why, unfortunately, they had to chop me.
We’ve also been ordering a lot of take-out. And it’s there that I thought I might have something to say. Although some restaurants in the DMV are re-opening for patio service, many, like me, are skittish about heading back anytime soon. We’re still doing take-out and social-distancing our way around outdoor diners to grab our bags, or ordering in and playing ding-dong-ditch with the delivery person to get to the door for a wave before they drive away. I recognize there are far more important things going on in the world that deserve our attention. But we still gotta eat. We may as well make the best of it.
Consider this my Phase One re-opening.
Support the Change You Don’t Want to See
No one knows how many restaurants will fail during the pandemic. Estimates run as high as 75%, but even if it’s 20-30%, it’s a staggering loss. Think about which restaurants you want to see standing at the end of this crisis. Support them. Buy their t-shirts and gift certificates. Order their food and ignore all the advice I’m about to give you about driving distances and reheating. Because for the restaurants you care about it’s not really about the food — at least not right now — it’s about keeping them alive to cook another day.
This past week I’ve picked up Laotian food at Thip Khao in Columbia Heights and Mexican at Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park. I feel very connected to them both and badly want them to survive. My list of distant spots for the coming weeks includes Albi, ChiKo, Convivial, Unconventional Diner, Maketto, and Reveler’s Hour. I’m also going to be more intentional about supporting black-owned restaurants, such as those listed here. The food industry needs to have a larger conversation about racial inequality but it’s a place to start.
Naem Khao Thadeau (Crispy Rice Salad) from Thip Khao in DC
One of my favorite dishes in all of DC loses only a bit of its luster en route. While the crispy bits aren’t that crisp by the time I get home, this dish has so much deliciousness going on that all is forgiven just to taste it again.
Family Taco Meal for Four (Carnitas) from Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park
The braised carnitas, veggies, rice, and beans make the trip from Takoma Park without a problem. And the heirloom corn tortillas and chips are wonderful. All in all, a lot of very good food for $60. I always throw in a bowl of Cielo Rojo’s excellent pozole, either to eat with that night or for a great next-day lunch.
One more thing. Call them directly and pick up if you can. Avoid the vulture-like delivery services like GrubHub that syphon off whatever profits the restaurant stands to make. It sounds simple, but it’s not. The delivery services are so damn convenient. To force myself to do the right thing, I deputized my two daughters to guilt me every time I suggest using one of them. It’s worked beautifully so far — we’ve cut way back on on third-party delivery. It also marks the first time they’ve done exactly what I asked without having to remind them.
The RickEatsDC Take-Out Formula™
There’s nothing like eating a restaurant’s food right out of the kitchen. The goal of take-out is essentially to try to replicate that experience as closely as possible. There are two key variables: elapsed time and how well the food travels.
From the time they box up your food to the time you walk in your door is essentially a race against the clock. You have about fifteen minutes to drive home and get the food on the table. After that, you can easily fall into reheating territory. Many restaurants now send detailed reheating instructions with their food, which is a thoughtful move but better avoided if possible. This is where picking up the food yourself can give you an advantage. The delivery services don’t have the same incentives you do to be there when the order is ready and head directly home. Nothing sends a dagger through my heart like getting a text message saying my Dasher is on his way and will be arriving after he makes another stop.
Some dishes that travel well: (1) braised dishes like carnitas and lamb shoulder, (2) soups, stews and curries, (3) room temp dishes like sushi or salads, (4) BBQ ribs, (5) rice dishes, (6) casseroles like lasagna and moussaka, and (7) fried chicken (several fancier restaurants have turned themselves into fried-chicken joints during the pandemic). Thicker steaks travel reasonably well, so long as they’re not cooked past medium rare.
Here’s what doesn’t travel well: (1) fried foods (if you order french fries, set your oven to 400° before you go and pop them in for 5-10 minutes when you get home), (2) pizza (surprisingly) and particularly Neapolitan pizza, and (3) most pasta dishes. Fancy food generally doesn’t travel well at all, and not just because the trappings of fine dining are lacking. It’s too delicate to survive the ordeal.
If you order something that travels well, you can add 10-20 minutes to the 15-minute deadline. In other words, order carefully and you can increase your time horizon to around a half-hour from boxing to plate.
Expressed as a formula, that’s ∑ +ƒ = T – ∞, where ∑ equals elapsed time, ƒ equals travelability, T equals total time, and infinity equals your annoyance when you get home and find that the bag fell over in the back seat and none of the containers were secured.
Applying the RickEatsDC Take-Out Formula™
Within my Formula area (about a two-mile radius around Friendship Heights), our regular take-out spots include Raku for noodle soups and sushi, Alatri for pizza and salads, Sorrento for classic Italian, Bangkok Garden for Thai, Moby Dick for kabobs, Surfside for Tex-Mex, and Little Beast for Caesar salad, short ribs, and Detroit-style pizza. Here are some others:
Grilled Asparagus and Burrata Salad from Sfoglina in DC
This particular burrata salad may not be on the menu, but Sfoglina doubtless will have another lovely salad that travels well. Sfoglina is more of a splurge than an everyday event. But you can’t go wrong with a salad or grilled calamari and a house-made pasta. Even warmed up, the quality and saucing are first-rate.
Hanger Steak with Frites from Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda
I didn’t think steak frites would work for carry-out, so this surprised me. The hanger steak is thicker than the regular steak frites on Mon Ami’s menu and travels much better. The steak stayed warm during the 7-minute ride home and the five minutes the fries were in the oven rejuvenating themselves. All-in-all, a decent replication of the in-house experience. One more thing: be sure to order the good french bread, which comes gratis at the restaurant but must be ordered separately for take-out.
Pepperoni Pizza from Frankly…Pizza! in Kensington
One of the best pizzas in the DMV and definitely my favorite within a 15-minute drive. You can reserve a pizza pick-up slot each day starting at 4 pm. Try to arrive a few minutes early so you’re there when your pizza comes out. My sister and her family had the brilliant idea of eating in their car, which is ideal, but I have folks waiting at home so I need a different strategy. First, drive like you’re Fred Flintstone and Wilma’s in labor (YouTube it). Second, call home a few minutes out and preheat a cookie sheet in a 400° oven. Third, take a quick temp check when you walk in and make sure the pizza’s still warm enough to start with at least a single piece. Then heat the rest of the pizza on the preheated cookie sheet so it’s back to temp by the time you finish piece #1. It’s a finely-tuned ballet that feels a bit neurotic at first blush — okay at second and third blush as well — but it’s the price you pay for craving pizza on the outskirts of your Formula area.
Chicken Sandwich from Popeye’s in DC
It took the pandemic for me to try Popeye’s chicken sandwich but it mostly lives up to the hype and blows away Chik-fil-A. Plus Popeye’s has its own delivery app, so ordering is simple and guilt-free. PS – don’t sleep on Popeye’s smoky red beans & rice, a dish I lived on in law school that also travels well.
Soy-Garlic Chicken Wings from MOMO in Bethesda
With all due respect to Nashville and Buffalo, Korean fried chicken rules. A few wings, a bowl of Bibimbap and some chap chae from MOMO and you’ve got a solid delivery dinner with enough veggies to feel semi-virtuous.
I hope this guide helps. Take-out isn’t ideal, but neither is in-restaurant dining in an era of social-distancing. It’ll be a while before we figure this out. Until then, look for a lot of experimentation.
Some creepy (the mannequins at the Inn at Little Washington went viral):
Some goofy (interestingly, Germany leads the world in goofy social-distancing ideas):
And some completely darling:
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting late and I need to get dinner started. Fingers crossed that Alexa and Siri have some good ideas for shriveled eggplant and breakfast sausages.