If you’ve ever considered playing chef at home, now is a good time to act, as area restaurants are promoting meal kits along with their regular takeout/delivery menus. The DIY packages I’ve sampled resemble cooking classes, replete with everything you need to make a dish, expertly cut and arranged, and directions for what turns out to be easy assembly and cooking. Think of the kits as a meditative dinner and a show, co-starring you.
One of the most promising conversations I’ve had with a chef in the past few months involved Victor Albisu, owner of the upscale Mexican Poca Madre in Washington and five branches of the casual Taco Bamba, which originated in Falls Church seven years ago. While he has closed Poca Madre and the lone Taco Bamba in the city — both in a once-bustling business district — Albisu says he’s doing about 85 percent of the business he had before March with his four Taco Bamba operations in Northern Virginia.
The chef says his taco meal kit was “the first thing we pivoted to” when takeout and delivery became the only way to eat restaurant food. The $42 “prepare your oven” package includes a choice of two reheatable fillings, 20 corn tortillas and a pint of freshly made pico de gallo. Instructions are simple: All you do is add a little water to the fillings, pop them in a 400-degree oven for about the time it takes to watch a couple of shorts on Quibi, then add the foil-wrapped tortillas for the last few minutes. Cooking is even faster in the microwave oven, but why rush in a pandemic?
Pork slowly roasted in condensed milk with oregano, cumin and bay leaf leads to superlative carnitas, their edges crisped in the cooking. More complex is “spicy shroom,” a dusky vegetarian fantasy teaming portobellos, grilled corn, stinging onions, chipotle and earthy cilantro. The pico de gallo sparkles, no doubt because it’s made fresh throughout the day and the maiden restaurant doesn’t have a walk-in cooler. The storefronts sell about 300 meal kits a week.
You’ll want to supersize your order with rice, beans and salsa. Taco Bamba’s sunny yellow grains are freckled with familiar vegetables, and its black beans, infused with sofrito, reveal unexpected bright notes. Albisu credits dried avocado leaves for the umami. Bamba salsa, wicked with arbol chile, costs $8 for a 16-ounce bottle. A little dab will do you on the tacos; leftovers of sauce are a given. Albisu says the creamy, burnt-orange lava can be enjoyed as a dip for sliced vegetables, drizzled over enchiladas or added to gazpacho. (Just be sure to inform recipients of the torch to follow.)
The chef’s partner in the business is his mother, Rosa Susinski, whose Latin grocery shares a parking lot with the original Taco Bamba in Falls Church. The merchant goes to the trouble of making her own chorizo and chimichurri, but she knows that some things can’t be improved upon. Those bright little peas, carrots and corn in her son’s brilliant rice might be familiar because they’re out of bags, from her shop’s freezer case. 2190 Pimmit Dr., Falls Church. 703-639-0505. tacobamba.com. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Delivery available from Grub Hub. Other locations at 10629 Braddock Rd. in Fairfax, 6691 Backlick Rd. in Springfield and 164 Maple Ave. West in Vienna. Taco kit $42.
The general manager and executive chef at Osteria Morini huddled after restaurants were required to suspend sit-down service. What could they do to best engage customers? Kim Hunter and Tommy Levandoski figured a pasta-making kit had potential and that cappelletti stuffed with truffled ricotta — the Italian restaurant’s signature dish — was the noodle to promote. Their hunch proved a hit from the night it was introduced. Within just half an hour of opening, 25 of the 40 packages had been snatched up. Business for the kit remained brisk enough to bring back Morini’s senior pasta maker now and then — a win-win for all.
The step-by-step directions, illustrated with stamp-size photos, are so thorough, it’s as if Levandoski is watching over your shoulder, coaching you on. Meanwhile, the rhythmic nature of lining up the 30 little circles of pasta, using the enclosed piping bag to dot the centers, and twisting the rounds into pretty hats is, as the chef says, “very Zen.”
For the sake of comparison, I ordered with my kit the cappelletti whipped up (to the finish) by the osteria. To the restaurant’s credit, they were close as twins. Same pretty ruffles, same pleasant chew, same wash of truffle butter melted with a splash of pasta water. Snips of pre-measured pink prosciutto and a dusting of grated Parmesan make fine enhancements.
My order, designed to serve two, came with more filling than pasta; Levandoski says that’s intentional. He would much rather send a kit off with more ricotta than too little. Anyway, the filling can be repurposed atop pizza, in lasagna or, as I enjoyed it, spread on (oh, what a beautiful morning) toast.
To sustain interest, Levandoski is thinking of swapping out cappelletti for another pasta down the road. On the horizon, he says, are gnocchi and tagliatelle — more to help home cooks get into the zone. 301 Water St. SE. 202-484-0660. osteriamorini.com. Open daily from 4 to 8:30 p.m. Delivery available from Caviar, DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats. Pasta kit $40, $45 if delivered.
Ramen purveyor Hatoba sweats the fine points. The restaurant’s thin and wavy noodles are the result of its owners consulting with the esteemed Nishiyama in Sapporo, Japan, which uses water from snow-capped mountains in Hokkaido that runs into a lake and eventually finds its way to a spring beneath the noodle factory.
You might have expected the Navy Yard newcomer to create a ramen kit during the crisis. Instead, its principals opted to offer another Japanese comfort, yakisoba. A fixture in food stalls and festivals on its home turf, yakisoba is a stir-fry built around noodles, meat and vegetables — ingredients Hatoba always has on hand — and typically cooked on a griddle, says chef and co-owner Katsuya Fukushima. “The dish made sense.”
While the directions involve a dozen steps, the time from start to table is fleeting, since Hatoba has chopped and measured everything. The drill goes like this: Heat up some oil, add the shaved pork belly, let it brown, push it to the edge of the pan. Onions, crisp bean sprouts and shredded cabbage follow pretty much the same steps. Near the end, the signature pale yellow noodles go in the center of the pan, along with some water to loosen them up. Next, a little cup of brown sauce livens the stir-fry with oyster sauce, Japanese Worcestershire, sugar and vinegar. Garnishes of red pickled ginger and green powdered seaweed nudge the dish from beige to beautiful.
Fukushima says yakisoba makes frequent appearances on his parents’ table in Havre de Grace, Md., where his father, Reggie, insists on cooking for his son. (Dad, who grew up in Hawaii, is reportedly liberal with the pickled ginger, and in recent years replaced Spam with pork shoulder in the stir-fry.)
Step No. 12 on the list is almost too easy: “Enjoy!!”
Yes, chef. 300 Tingey St. SE. 202-488-4800. hatobadc.com. Open noon to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Delivery via Caviar, GrubHub and Uber Eats. Yakisoba kit $13.
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