In 2020, necessity was the mother of invention in the restaurant world. In 2019, Santa Fe had never heard of curbside sushi at Kohnami or parking lot omelets from Dolina. But in the face of pandemic restrictions, a few local chefs are pulling out all the stops in the takeout game.
We’ve entered the era of the multicourse meal to go. I recently enjoyed some beauties from Paloma, Open Kitchen and Joseph’s Culinary Pub. Here’s how they work: Instead of choosing an appetizer, entree and desserts from a large menu, you order a curated experience of three or more courses from a chef who is most likely exclusively focusing on those preparations for the evening. These meals are carefully wrapped, boxed and bagged by restaurant staff.
The restaurants adopting this new model are using a mix of old-school culinary wisdom – thinking more than ever in terms of seasonality, volume and economy – and technological savvy. With social media advertising and online ordering, diners can place orders several days in advance, which gives chefs time to allocate resources and plan for deliveries or pickups. It also gives the customer – with cupboards full of dried beans, pasta and stalled-out sourdough starter – something delicious to anticipate.
Even with a tip of 20% or more on these elaborate takeout dinners, customers are coming out the winners in terms of price and value. I recently enjoyed a three-course solo dinner from Paloma for $35 (plus tip). That’s a low, low price I’ve never paid even on a split check when dining in owner Marja Martin’s vibrant interior or on the bright, cheery patio at Paloma.
The South Guadalupe Street mainstay pivoted to what they call “Paloma Supper” in early December, advertising a new weekly menu for Fridays and Saturdays, along with “take-and-bake” enchilada trays and such extras as chips, guacamole and queso.
I pulled up 15 minutes late to Paloma for my allotted pickup time, greeted by a surprisingly cheery staff member who slid a carefully packed paper bag into my passenger seat. At home, I unpacked the still-warm containers. I started with a creamy potato-leek soup with a hint of roasted poblano flavor, made smokier by the addition of separately packed bacon bits and morita chile oil. Immediately, I was basking in elevated comfort food, including flavors I wouldn’t normally find in my own kitchen.
That mingled sense of familiarity and discovery continued with an 8-ounce steak a la Tampiqueña: a skirt steak marinated and grilled with multicolored peppers and onions. It was smoky, it was charred, it was fatty and meaty, and it was sizable. Tucked under it was a sturdy rolled cheese enchilada soaked in fruity, tangy guajillo chile next to a mound of poblano-flavored rice, a dollop of refried black beans and a fan of avocado slices. Everything held its shape and flavor perfectly.
Knowing the wizardry of pastry chef Jessica Bransford, I knew the grapefruit and mezcal cake with salted honey would be a treat, and it was: a generous square of a simple, but delicious, batter crowned with whole citrus slices, and dressed in an array of smoky, sweet and tangy flavors.
Another evening, in search of more far-flung flavors, I sampled “Let’s Nhau! A Feast of Vietnamese Tapas.” This assortment of Vietnamese appetizers ($65) came via delivery from chef Hue-Chan Karels’ Open Kitchen. Open Kitchen has moved from the catering business to meal delivery and pickup during the pandemic, and its pop-up dinner events have become multicourse delivery events.
There were dark, sticky chicken wings redolent of fish sauce, ginger and honey, sided with pickled veggies (cauliflower, carrots), roasted peanuts and big white prawn chips, which I dipped in a sweet, plummy sauce. A vinegary green papaya salad with lemon grass and bits of spicy beef jerky cooled my palate before I wrapped grilled shrimp skewers and rice noodles with basil and cilantro in large lettuce leaves, dipping them back in the sauce.
A warming bowl of cháo vit, a duck and rice porridge, was the flavorful sum of its intricate parts. A duck egg marinated with ginger and fish sauce, braised shiitake mushrooms, pickled mustard greens and crispy shallots, all wrapped separately, rounded out the soup with a symphony of separate notes.
A pair of bánh tieu, small hollow doughnuts sprinkled with sesame, finished Karels’ careful orchestration.
And at the end of that pretty great multicourse meal deal, I’ll have a whole new year of culinary creativity ahead of me.