January-February 2021 | Food & Drink

Takeout takeaways

Our restaurant critic looks into the challenges of carryout and shares his strategies for making the most of the to-go experience

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Lamb chops and crabcakes are among the to-go items offered at Real Nutritious Food in Chevy Chase, D.C. Photo by Deb Lindsey

The last meal I ate inside a Bethesda restaurant was in early March 2020 at Cubano’s, which I wrote about in my most recent review as Bethesda Magazine’s restaurant critic. As COVID-19 and a stay-at-home order descended on us, I was fine, even happy, with cooking at home. I’m a former chef, and cooking for myself is something I rarely had the opportunity to do.

Through March, I was hesitant to order takeout because I wasn’t sure it was safe for my husband and me—we’re both in a high-risk category—or for the staff at the restaurant, but I wanted to help local businesses. When more information about the virus came to light and businesses put safety protocols in place (the CDC considers the risk of getting COVID-19 from eating or handling food and its packaging very low), I started ordering from sit-down restaurants at least once a week as a way to support them.

There are, of course, inherent problems with takeout from sit-down restaurants. The product is not meant to be shoved into boxes and eaten a half-hour later at home, and no matter how well the food is handled, it will always lack vital ingredients: the buzz of a crowded room, the repartee with servers, the people-watching, the eavesdropping. In short, the experience of being there—and not home. “We just send food out into a void now,” says Jennifer Meltzer, who, with her husband, chef Ed Reavis, owns All Set Restaurant & Bar, a seafood spot in Silver Spring. “I’m a micromanager. I want to control the guest experience, but with takeout it’s out of my hands once it’s out the door. We don’t see the reaction on people’s faces when they eat.”

I asked restaurateurs in the Bethesda area about the takeout challenges they face and ordered dinner from four places—Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville; Muchas Gracias, which opened in March in Upper Northwest D.C.; Real Nutritious Food (RNF), which opened in Chevy Chase, D.C., in August; and Money Muscle BBQ, a concept that Reavis and Meltzer debuted in September as an adjunct to All Set.

The kinamot feast at Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly in Rockville. Photo by Deb Lindsey

Until the beginning of February 2020, Kuya Ja’s chef and owner, Javier Fernandez, held monthly kinamot dinners. He’d push together the tables of his small, fast-casual Filipino restaurant in two rows of 12 seats each, cover them with banana leaves, heap steaming mounds of rice down the center, and top them with portions of 15 dishes, everything meant to be eaten with your hands. (Kinamot means “with your hands” in Cebuano, the language of the chef’s native Filipino island.) The dinners would sell out quickly, and guests sitting shoulder to shoulder, many of them strangers, would introduce themselves and shake hands before digging in. It wasn’t meant to be a takeout experience.

That was then; this is now.

I arrive at White Flint Plaza on a Friday evening and park right in front of Kuya Ja’s. With my phone, I place and pay for my order—a $79.99 takeout kinamot that feeds two to four—using the giant QR code posted in the restaurant’s window. I call the restaurant and ask them to text me when the food is ready so I can come in to retrieve it. Instead, 15 minutes later, a masked employee brings the aluminum foil roasting pan containing my dinner and places it in my open trunk. (Fernandez offers the kinamot on Thursday through Sunday once a month.)

I regret that I didn’t attend one of Fernandez’s kinamot dinners when I had the chance, and it occurs to me as I make the 40-minute drive to my home in Washington that he surely wishes he could still host the communal dinners in person. He knows the clock ticks on the quality and integrity of his product once the food leaves the restaurant.

When the food will be eaten and how it will be reheated and served are beyond Fernandez’s control—anathema to chefs—so he does what he can to ensure that the takeout version is the best it can be. Due to Kuya Ja’s small size, 60% of its sales pre-pandemic were takeout, so the staff is familiar with packaging food and getting it to people’s homes in good condition. “We place our lumpia and empanadas in domed compostable clamshells [containers that hinge on one side and snap together on the other] because they have more air circulation,” Fernandez explains. “If you put fried foods in the black plastic [polypropylene] containers we use for our combos, rice and noodles, they condensate and drip onto the fried food and make it soggy. The clamshell, made from sugarcane, absorbs the condensation.” When customers pick up a kinamot, the staff tells them the tray is covered for sanitary purposes but suggests they open the lid as soon as they’re in the car, letting air in so the crispy items don’t steam. (I bent back a corner of my kinamot’s lid.)

At home, I put my chef skills to use. (And wash my hands a lot.) Removing the kinamot’s lid, I marvel at the splendid array spread out on banana leaves: lumpia (long, thin egg rolls) with chicken and pork filling; Fernandez’s signature lechon (roasted pork belly and crackling skin); a rotisserie chicken leg; barbecued rib-eye skewers; homemade sweet pork longanisa (sausage); seared bok choy; mango jicama salad; green papaya salad; steamed rice; garlic fried rice; shrimp chips; fresh lime wedges and various sauces. (The sauces and salads are in sealed plastic containers.) In the center, standing majestically upright, is a whole fried red snapper. Fernandez slices the fish in a way that four boneless fillets curl away from the spine when it’s fried, a flourish of technique as practical as it is dramatic because I can easily remove the fillets from the fish’s frame to reheat them.

Real Nutritious Food chef Andre Williams preparing a takeout order. Photo by Deb Lindsey

To prepare the food, I first separate out the cold items and sauces. It would be easy to pop the pan into a conventional oven for the remaining items to reheat, but the rice would dry out and the foods meant to be crisp wouldn’t be. Instead, I reheat the lumpia, fish fillets, meats and soggy shrimp chips in a 375-degree toaster oven for about six minutes. A toaster oven works better than a conventional oven for crisping up foods because the heating elements are closer to the items in a more confined space. It performs its job as I expected, restoring crunch to the fried items and the skin on the chicken and lechon belly. I reheat the rices and the bok choy in the microwave in small covered bowls. To serve, I place the hot and cold dishes and sauces attractively on a large platter.

I always set the dining room table properly, sometimes even using the good china. We never eat with disposable utensils (I tell restaurants not to include them to save them the cost) and never (well, rarely) eat out of takeout containers. I often go out of my way to plate the meal in a professional way, as I would have when I worked in a restaurant.

Our kinamot meal is excellent, partially because I gave it the chance to be by devoting thought to its reheating. Would I have preferred freshly made food at Kuya Ja’s and laughing it up with newly made friends? Of course. But I have learned in the pandemic to alter and manage my expectations. Takeout is now my way to keep up with the restaurant scene. It is also not lost on me that restaurants may not be there in the future if I don’t support them now. (Sadly, they may not be anyway.)

Other restaurant operators have had to play catch-up on the takeout front during the pandemic. Mark Bucher, the co-owner of Medium Rare in Bethesda, saw takeout sales for his steak-and-french fries restaurant go from 10% pre-pandemic to more than 75% this past November. “Chinese restaurants and pizza guys have perfected takeout. Domino’s will get a hot pizza to your door or it’s free; no one is saying it’s good, but it’s there and it’s hot. Even McDonald’s designed recipes to travel and be in a bag. Sit-down restaurants never had to deal with that,” Bucher says.

French fries are a major component of Bucher’s concept. To stave off sogginess he uses a container that has a hole in the lid (it actually makes a big difference), but he advises customers to eat the fries on the way home if they want them crisp, or to reheat them in a toaster oven. (I usually avoid ordering fried food, but if I do, I always open the container it’s in, or poke holes in it, for the ride home. I’m also a fan of the “eat the fries in the car” strategy.)

The four restaurants I order from mostly serve their food in a combination of microwavable containers, some plastic (polypropylene, which is recyclable), some compostable and some paper. “We have to use what works,” says All Set’s Meltzer. “Before the pandemic, we were exploring alternative straws, even cornstarch straws. Now, no one cares about straws.”

My personal decision: I care about the environment and sustainability, but I’m letting restaurants off the hook about plastics until the pandemic is over. I allow towers of containers to rise in my basement and spare myself a guilt trip for occasionally throwing some out. By the way, the cost of packaging has skyrocketed, according to Scott Attman, vice president of Maryland-based Acme Paper & Supply Co., which sells to many mid-Atlantic restaurants, including Muchas Gracias and Money Muscle BBQ. He indicates the cost of plastic containers has increased 18% since last spring, and paper bags are up 16%. At Medium Rare, Bucher says, packaging for a dinner for four is $8 to $10, but he hasn’t raised his prices. (Not to mention the cost of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer. Reavis and Fernandez both note that the price of food service gloves has risen 400% since the pandemic began.)

Carryout containers at Medium Rare in Bethesda.

Restaurants have added menu items that travel well and adjusted others to make them appropriate for takeout. That’s what chef Robert Wiedmaier and his corporate chef and business partner Brian McBride did at their 42-seat (pre-COVID-19) Bethesda restaurant Wildwood Kitchen. “The average age of our guests is 50 to 75. They’re not sitting in a small restaurant in COVID,” Wiedmaier says. “In October, we turned the place into Wildwood Market. Now we do only takeout, selling dips, salads, soups, pasta sauces and other things that travel well and reheat without being soggy, like braised lamb shank, boeuf bourguignon and chicken pot pie.”

It’s a good idea to follow these chefs’ leads and order foods that hold up well to reheating, which is what I do one afternoon at Money Muscle BBQ . Reavis and Meltzer’s COVID-19 plan was to make the All Set menu more takeout-friendly and to incorporate Money Muscle BBQ into the All Set location because barbecue and its sides travel and reheat well. They couldn’t come to terms with the landlord on the renovation, so they turned Money Muscle BBQ into a food truck and added barbecue to the All Set menu. (“Money muscle” is a barbecue term that refers to the most flavorful and succulent muscle in a pork butt.)

Money Muscle’s menu offers Texas-style brisket, pulled pork (the kind Reavis grew up eating in his Virginia hometown near the North Carolina border), baby back pork ribs, beef short ribs, and brined, then smoked turkey legs, half chickens and chicken wings. I order an assortment of the meats one Sunday, plus sides of coleslaw, baked beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and skillet cornbread.

Reavis is constantly making efforts to improve packaging. “I use some plastic containers because I’m not comfortable putting collard greens and mashed potatoes in paper boxes. I learned to put the sauces in a separate bag so they don’t spill over or explode. We were stapling bags at first, but now we use our own branded stickers as tamper seals and also on folded paper boxes to keep them from opening. I also started wrapping barbecue in butcher wrap instead of putting it in plastic containers. It keeps it moister and has a more rustic look,” he says.

All of the dishes I order are easy to reheat at home. I put the meats on a sheet pan with a little water, cover the pan with foil and put it in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes to warm it through. (The water keeps it from drying out.) Macaroni and cheese and cornbread go into the toaster oven. Collards and baked beans get microwaved. And lots of paper towels go on the table.

Part of my takeout strategy is to wait until I get to the restaurant to place my order, as I do at Real Nutritious Food. That way, I know the food is at its peak. The restaurant’s chef and owner is 31-year-old Washington, D.C., native Andre Williams, whose experience in D.C. kitchens includes stints at Bluejacket, The Salt Line and Founding Farmers.

The food—rare soy and garlic-marinated lamb chops with crab fried rice and charred broccoli; a broiled 9-ounce jumbo lump crabcake with corn and cherry tomato succotash and potato wedges; and hot mumbo sauce chicken wings—is still warm after a 15-minute drive home, but I prefer it hotter. The crabcake and potato wedges go into a 375-degree toaster oven for 10 minutes. The broccoli, fried rice and succotash go into serving bowls and the microwave for a minute or two. (Williams’ crabcake ranks among the best I’ve had in the D.C. area.)

I always order meat and fish to a doneness that’s less than I prefer so the reheating doesn’t ruin them. My rare chops get a 30-second microwaving that brings them to medium, perfect for me. The wings are fine without reheating, even if the sauce wasn’t on the side as requested. What do I do about the mistake? Nothing. My advice about complaining in a pandemic? Unless it’s something egregious, let it slide.

Not far from RNF is Muchas Gracias, which was supposed to be Buckeroos. Chef Christian Irabién, 40, had been tapped to create and run Buckeroos, meant to be, in his words, “a refined, boutique-y, Tex-Mex restaurant.” The Mexican-born, El Paso, Texas-raised chef hired and trained the staff and was ready to open last March when COVID-19 disrupted his plans. He shut down Buckeroos, let everyone go and started making hot meals for Spanish-speaking immigrants who had lost kitchen jobs. That grew into selling meals to go and grocery items to people wary of supermarkets in the pandemic’s early days. Demand exploded, and so did the community’s desire for restaurant food. Irabién hired back two employees, then eight more.

“We went from opening a concept I was working on for years to opening an entirely new concept, Muchas Gracias, in 72 hours,” Irabién says. “For Muchas Gracias, we’re not trying to do culinary acrobatics. I didn’t hire trained chefs. I hired people who were out of work and needed a job. This is hug-driven Mexican food, not chef-driven.” Takeout, he says, accounts for 75% to 85% of Muchas Gracias’s sales.

If you’re getting food for yourself, why not help out restaurants and pick up some for others while you’re at it? A week before I order from Muchas Gracias, I email a group of seven neighbors to ask if they want in. Five do. On the prescribed day, I pick up the food, pay for each order separately, deliver to my neighbors and email them their receipts so they can reimburse me via Venmo. (They all rave the next day and thank me for organizing, which I do at least once a month.)

The first thing I notice about my order is the clever branding. Food labels that resemble name tag stickers say “HELLO, MY NAME IS” on the top and “!Muchas Gracias Mercadito!” on the bottom, both on red backgrounds. (Mercadito means little market.) In the white center is the name of the item inside, say “Tortilla” or “Guacamole,” printed by machine. It’s smart to invest in clever packaging; these days, that’s one of the first impressions a diner gets of a restaurant experience.

Irabién made packaging choices through trial and error. “Premade tacos don’t travel well, so our tacos are more like stews with tortillas on the side. Our first containers didn’t hold the stews’ moisture well, and there was seepage in the bag, so we changed to ones that snapped shut and were more durable,” he says. “We use wax-coated paper bags for our tortillas, because they hold heat and moisture well. We make the tortillas in-house from corn we grind and make into masa every day.”

My order includes chips, guacamole and two salsas; elote (corn on the cob) with herb mayo, butter, chili spice mix and queso fresco; kale Caesar salad; and two taco platters, one with strips of beautifully grilled, medium-rare hanger steak, the other with carnitas, pork slowly braised in garlic broth. The platters come with black beans and garlic rice.

I remove the cold sauces and garnishes from the platters and elote, and microwave the hot items separately for about a minute in their black plastic containers. It takes only 10 seconds in the microwave to warm each bag of four tortillas beautifully. On this occasion, it’s easier to serve from the plastic containers so I don’t bother with serving bowls.

I always order extra takeout food so there are leftovers to repurpose as another meal, but also because it helps the restaurant’s bottom line. The day after our Kuya Ja’s kinamot meal, I wok-fry the leftover bok choy, meats and rices, adding other vegetables from the fridge and eggs that I scramble in the bottom of the wok during cooking.

Leftover beans, rice, meats and kale from Muchas Gracias become the base for a rib-sticking stew I prepare, topping it with the remaining guacamole and tortillas that I cut into thin strips and deep-fry until crunchy. Next-day tidbits from Money Muscle BBQ get a similar one-pot treatment to become three quarts of soup that go into the freezer for future enjoyment.

I believe in good takeout etiquette. Having come from a 25-year career in the restaurant business, I always advocate for treating its workers with kindness, patience and generosity, but in these times, I up my game—and tip closer to 30%. I avoid using third-party apps that charge restaurants onerous fees. When you pick up your food, mask up, maintain social distancing, bring your own hand sanitizer and pen, and be just as concerned with “What am I doing to make them safe?” as you are with “What are they doing to make me safe?”

Then go home and fire up the toaster oven.

David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.