The once-mundane act of ordering dinner for takeout or delivery has become fraught with all kinds of complicated baggage during this pandemic of locked-down public dining rooms.
Are we putting restaurant workers in danger by keeping them at their work and exposing them to the public while delivering food? Yes. On the flip side, are we giving small businesses a financial lifeline — however thin — by continuing to patronize their efforts? Also yes.
Are we enabling the delivery app services to continue gouging restaurants with fees when they’re most vulnerable and need all the resources to stay open? It’s undeniable. And the “necessary evil” aspect of it all seems particularly galling when GrubHub can’t be counted on to accurately update its database and we ended up waiting for a paid delivery from a restaurant (Sang Kee) that, in fact, had been closed for three weeks. (The charges were eventually reversed, but that’s 30 minutes in customer service purgatory I won’t get back). That experience definitely deterred me from patronizing places that relied exclusively on GrubHub.
I’m encouraged that many restaurants have taken the delivery into their own hands and begun to refine the protocols of a contact-free transaction. That includes diligent use of masks and gloves during preparation and delivery, prepayment options like Venmo for previously cash-only places (Yay!), and a simple door knock-and-drop delivery method to assure the food handoff is done with minimal close personal exposure.
I admit there is an element of selfishness in my desire to take an occasional break from cooking every meal. But the taste of an expert al pastor taco, stromboli, or South Indian biryani, and my reflex to celebrate our city of diverse kitchens and hardworking entrepreneurs inevitably wins out over those hesitations.
As long as restaurants seek safe ways to continue to be a vibrant part of our lives, I plan to keep ordering. So, here are several highlights from the past few weeks.
Getting food delivered inevitably requires accepting some compromises. But chef and co-owner Sunny Phanthavong has not let takeout containers stand in the way of capturing the full vibrance and heat of the Lao flavors that define her Kensington BYOB as one of my favorite Southeast Asian kitchens. Don’t miss the naam lettuce wraps of crispy coconut-curry rice, the lemongrass rich sausages, or especially the minced port laab, which is so zingy with chile-laced lime, herbs, galangal, and roasted rice powder, it’s hard to stop eating despite the pepper heat. Take a pinch of sticky rice to balance it all. Vientiane’s khao phoon King Soup is a meal on its own. Plus, one other lesser-talked-about fact: Vientiane also cooks some of the city’s best Thai food.
There’s no better Chinese restaurant around Rittenhouse Square than this stylish little bi-level Szechuan mainstay. It turns out that DanDan is one of the area’s most efficient delivery operations around, as well. DanDan got a meal at our door via Caviar that was still hot and fresh from the wok — spicy dan dan noodles (of course!), crispy scallion pancakes, nose-tingling cumin chicken, heat-blistered string beans, and tender dumplings in a lip-numbing gloss of chili oil and soy.
I’ve long had a soft spot for Cotoletta’s retro Phila-talian red gravy style, especially the pure cutlet indulgence of its signature “Stack” of layered chicken Parm, eggplant, and sausage-stuffed long hot peppers ribboned with provolone. Owner Beth Amadio has supersized the Stack into a “family-sized” meal that can actually feed a big family. Really. There are so many levels of cutlet goodness densely layered lasagna-style into the pan, which weighs about 5 pounds, that there’s enough for eight to 10 portions. Consider it comes with a pan of ziti, Caesar salad, and ricotta-filled mini cannoli — for $95 — and you have a pandemic value meal for days.
While some of South Philly’s Mexican stalwarts have decided to close, pioneer Los Gallos is still going strong with some of the best al pastor tacos in town, handmade sope rounds topped with shredded chicken tinga smoky with chipotle spice, and a soulfully dark mole over chicken enchiladas that pays tribute to the owner’s Poblano roots. Los Gallos is another that has eschewed the apps to handle its own delivery, and seems to be overcoming early struggles to allow no-contact prepayment with credit cards.
Chef Ian Moroney and Hillary Bor never let the tiny size of their 26-seater in Graduate Hospital deter them from becoming one of our most reliable Philly BYOB classics. They’ve not let the pandemic tamp their ambitious spirit, either. The restaurant posts some of the most graphically delightful menus I’ve seen daily on Instagram. And Moroney and his staff are turning out some genuinely elegant food despite the format, from shrimp in herbaceous green escabeche scattered with watermelon radishes, to browned chicken roulade over freekeh, and dewy fresh halibut with dukkah and yogurt. A chocolate cake with cherry, peanuts, and whipped cream was so meticulously plated, I almost forgot it was inside a plastic takeout tub. Portions aren’t huge, but quality is impressive. And at $35 for three courses, this would be a highlight meal of any Restaurant Week.
This is one comeback that makes me especially happy, because the flavors of Center City’s recent South Indian boom were conspicuously absent. Amma’s, despite a strong existing takeout business, decided to close early in the lockdown. One month later, co-owner Sathish Varadhan and his partners have mastered the protocols, added their own delivery service (call direct) to delivery app collaborations, and are back cooking the kind of bold South Indian specialties that made Amma’s one of my Top 25 restaurants in 2019. The delicate dosa crepe and medhu fritters, predictably, lost their crisp in transit. But the hot-and-sour gobi Manchurian was punchy as ever, the chicken 65 sparkling with spice, the gongura dal pure lentil comfort. And I could not get enough of chile-laced coconut stews like chicken Chettinad and Thalassery lamb, as well as a chicken biryani so fragrant, the rice dish perfumed our entire kitchen when I removed its takeout container lid.
My daughter always hoped to celebrate her 21st birthday with a Negroni at the Palizzi Social Club. But Joey Baldino’s private club homage to South Philly’s Italian American tradition was unfortunately closed by the shutdown when that big birthday came and went. Luckily, PSC has begun to-go meals Fridays and Saturdays for its members to prepay and pickup at designated time slots. An oozy loaf of stromboli stuffed with mozzarella and pepperoni. Garlicky escarole and beans. The spaghetti in crab gravy that was my 2017 dish of the year — so good, even reheated. Nonmembers should give a call to Baldino’s South Jersey Sicilian BYOB, Zeppoli (618 W. Collings Ave., Collingswood, 856-854-2670), because it’s open to the public. Either way, they’re both so good, dinner from a Baldino kitchen will be worth a toast to good health that seems more apt than ever: “Cent’anni!”