I think it’s safe to say the pandemic has been a nightmare for almost everyone in the restaurant industry, but for Riccio, the pestilence has been a daily reminder about her condition. She has a rare genetic connective tissue disorder that, in her younger days as a line cook, compelled her to pop ungodly amounts of aspirin to manage the pain. Once she weaned herself off analgesics, Riccio discovered she was severely allergic to dairy products, which might have been a death sentence to a lesser chef, the kind who orders butter, cream and cheese by the pallet. Riccio just changed her approach and kept on cooking: She now re-creates some of her favorite dishes in plant form.
Of course, some things can’t be changed with a simple shift in philosophy. Riccio’s illness has left her with a compromised immune system, which, for a coronavirus, is like oxygen to a fire. The chef basically went into hiding, forced to work graveyard shifts at Pow Pow, the couple’s first restaurant on H Street NE; or at home in a test kitchen that Sharkey built; or at the new Plant Food Lab on M Street NW, which the pair opened in the middle of the pandemic. The lab, incidentally, is also the temporary home to Riccio and Sharkey’s latest project, the kosher-certified Bubbie’s Plant Burgers and Fizz, which will operate as a takeout before migrating to Adams Morgan next year, with its own dedicated space and an expanded menu.
“I haven’t seen my staff in a year,” Riccio says during a phone conversation. She doesn’t mean that literally. Riccio has seen her employees over daily Zoom calls, but for months, she hasn’t worked with them in person. This, as you can imagine, is no way to run a kitchen. You can’t taste the food that your cooks prepare, checking for seasoning, texture, flavor, all the components that make or break a chef’s reputation.
Enter Sharkey who, during the pandemic, has served as Riccio’s surrogate palate.
“I have to give all the credit to Shaun,” Riccio says. “He runs back and forth between both restaurants for me. He will be my taster. He’ll tell me what texture it is. He knows what I need, like the information that I need, and if he doesn’t know, he will actually run it back to the house.”
Sharkey and Riccio are, perhaps, unlikely partners in business and life. They are both creatives who have managed to carve out space for their particular talents. She’s the chef. He’s the conceptual artist and designer. They’re both self-taught, learning their crafts in kitchens or, in Sharkey’s case, in the far-more-fickle music industry. He is, as his T-shirts announced in a recent Eater DC article, a “Nineties Rap Veteran.” He worked with names such as Eminem and Rick Rubin, and even released an album, “Sharkey’s Machine,” which critics either loved or loathed.
Sharkey has channeled his creative energies into building restaurant concepts, conceiving every last detail, including theme, interior design and the giftlike packaging materials. He was the one who dreamed up Bubbie’s, the vegan burger joint, which debuted as a pop-up in the Rock & Roll Hotel, the now-shuttered venue just down the street from Pow Pow. The way Riccio and Sharkey see it, Bubbie’s is to PLNT Burger what Lucky Buns is to McDonald’s. One is small and produces most everything in-house; the other has large, chainlike ambitions and relies on outside products.
A large part of what makes Bubbie’s successful is that its innovations are born from necessity. Riccio may be a vegan by choice, but she’s also one by a twist of fate. She invents dishes to satisfy her own longings for the food she can no longer eat. She has engineered, often out of thin air, vegan versions of hamburger patties, fried chicken and nuggets, pulled pork, bacon and a variety of cheeses that she sells under the Vertage brand. Her cheeses have also found homes in other restaurants, including Cielo Rojo, Call Your Mother and Andy’s Pizza. Is it any wonder that she sleeps only four hours a night?
The burgers at Bubbie’s can be ordered with either the housemade patty or one from Impossible Foods, the same company that designed the meat-free Whopper. The custom patty — fashioned from chickpeas, beets, onions, red peppers and oats, among other ingredients — is a crimson disc that picks up some nice color from the grill. It’s also as soft as roasted squash, but I fear that is, at least in part, due to the fact that I could never manage to sink my teeth into a Bleu Bubb or Single Bubb within a minute or two of their preparation. I suspect these custom patties lose their consistency quick, as they absorb the moisture of their toppings and sauces.
But it could be that I just fit Riccio’s profile: Vegans, she says, prefer the housemade patty, because they’re not hung up on whether their burgers resembles the real deal. Flexitarians are hung up on such comparisons and, thus, gravitate to the Impossible patty, its engineered meatiness impervious to its immediate surroundings. I hate being so predictable, but count me as a fan of the Big Bubb, with its towering, twin stack of Impossible patties draped with housemade American cheese, all melty and shot through with Worcestershire sauce to boost its flavor.
Riccio has developed ingenious recipes for both plant-based chicken and bacon. For the former, the chef discovered that tofu, once frozen, assumes the texture of chicken breasts, down to the slight stringiness of the meat. Her vegan bird, coated in a panko-and-spice blend, does a mean impersonation of fried chicken. I’m particularly fond of the Buffalo Fried Chick’n and the Chick’n Nuggets, which come with sesame ranch and agave mustard dipping sauces.
The chef really shows off her chops with breakfast sandwiches. I’m thinking specifically about a recent addition to the morning menu (available till 1 p.m daily): the breakfast burger, which features a sage-scented patty, egg, bacon and Muenster cheese, all vegan, all made in-house. Sandwiched between a grilled English muffin and dressed with a smoky housemade sauce, the burger comes together so completely (despite bacon with the texture of fondant) that you may not even think about its meat-based analog, which is really the whole point of Bubbie’s Plant Burgers.
Bubbie’s Plant Burgers and Fizz
1829 M St. NW, 202-758-2894; bubbiesburgers.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle or Farragut North, with a short walk to the takeout.
Prices: $1.50 to $20 for all items on the menu.