In the earliest days of our corona-induced stay-home order, I ordered takeout from Raíz, the family meal option astonishingly priced at $35. Just a few months earlier, chef Ricardo Valdes turned a former vegan baked potato cafe in Ballard into a neighborly dining room that paid equal tribute to his Mexican heritage and a career in higher-end kitchens. In the Before Times, my meals at Raíz included a whole trout, marble potatoes smoky from Oaxacan chiles, and, for brunch, carefully plated chilaquiles. The food I now unpacked on my kitchen counter looked nothing like this.
One white carton held tender cochinita pibil, way more bright-flavored pork than you could ever spoon into the dozen accompanying tortillas. Black beans, red rice. Little tubs of singeing orange and green salsas. A slice of four-layer chocolate cake made by Valdes’s wife, Amy Brown, culinary director for Frankie and Jo’s in her regular life. Only the chicory salad connected to my earlier meals at Raíz, a vivid combo of shredded pink and green, with pistachios and pear vinaigrette. My two-adult family stuffed ourselves and still had leftovers. Valdes recently upped the price to $39, and that’s still a rocking deal.
Valdes cheerfully acknowledges that he built his family meal out of “all the things I didn’t want Raíz to be.” Though he makes tacos (and grinds his own masa) at El Xolo, his counter on Capitol Hill, “I wanted to break that idea of what Mexican food is—you know, rice and beans on a plate with melted cheese.”
Pandemics have a way of rearranging priorities and business models. When Valdes and business partner Kenny Villegas sensed Covid shutdowns coming for their restaurant like a tornado in that 1990s Helen Hunt movie, they realized whole trout or biscuits and gravy can get pretty gnarly (or at least soggy) sitting around in a takeout container. What did their neighborhood need from them? “We said, screw it, let’s just make roasted chicken and rice and beans,” Valdes recalls. “I’m super stubborn, but you have to adapt, right?”
Adapting is by now an indefinite state of existence for the city’s restaurants. So is takeout—great news for kitchens that sell curry or pizza or smoked meats. Other chefs arrived at the same conclusion as Valdes. Uncertain, housebound times demand transportable family style meals, even if it means setting aside your regular menu ethos completely.
Canlis might have done this with the most panache, delivering pork enchiladas or wagyu meatloaf in boxes topped with a menu and a fresh flower. Northgate’s Indo Cafe set up a family meal “subscription” largely based on Chinese-Indonesian dishes that owner Irwan Ngadisastra says were childhood fare for many regulars. At Mamnoon, where Middle Eastern mezzes meld naturally into a family meal format, traditional entrees run about $25. When uncertainty descended, says culinary director Carrie Mashaney, her kitchen wanted a two-person spread to come in around $40. My Wednesday night order of chicken kebabs resembled home cooking—if I were about 10 times more accomplished in matters of brining, grilling, and dusting with za’atar.
I’ll be more than ready to leave behind masks and awkward plexiglass barriers and the hush of a socially distanced bar whenever it’s (hopefully) deemed safe. The family style takeout meal, however, is one vestige of coronalife that’s welcome to stick around. If diners are going to Tock, Postmates, and Caviar our way through 2020, we should be summoning meals built to travel farther than the five yards between a kitchen and dining room.
On day one of the shutdown, Brian Clevenger of Vendemmia, Haymaker, and Raccolto went all in on Northwest-Italian family meals. Eventually, regulars eager to support their neighborhood spot needed a break. Clevenger told his chefs, “make whatever you want that you think is delicious.” Falafel, ribs, and hush puppies proliferated. “It’s challenging to support us if it’s just rigatoni every day.”
It’s new for diners to view restaurants as a cause to support, new for chefs to let them. Hospitality traditionally means fulfilling our wishes, concealing the financial tightrope act as you would the dish pit. Restaurants that serve family meals pledge a more symbiotic relationship with their customers: We’ll step outside our norms to deliver what you need, be it more value or sturdier food. Customers in turn, promise to come back.
The mason jarred cocktail from Rione XIII, a sangria riff, opens with a champagne-worthy pop. An oversize brown paper bag yields cacio e pepe, packages of cookies and crackers, and a sense of discovery rather like unpacking one of those trunk club clothing boxes.
Rione, along with a few other Ethan Stowell restaurants, designed two-person takeout to approximate what the restaurateur terms “the full meal experience”—salad, burrata, and a few other niceties around the entree. The cheese and pepper sauce on my pasta had settled a bit, but still held up better than expected. And there’s something about a tiny container of olives that does fancy up dinner in sweats.
Stowell says family meals will stick around as places reopen. He likens them to happy hour, another tool to draw diners (especially ones wary of dining out). “This is a moment in time, but this probably won’t go away.”
Family meals will also continue at Raíz, where Ricardo Valdes coined an admittedly goofy term for the service that is, for now, the norm. “I don’t even want to say it out loud,” he says, before coming out with it: Slow-casual food. The kind of takeout that requires timed pickup and advance ordering, in his case over the phone. “We see you in person. We still have to ring you up. If we lose that completely, we’ll have a harder time going back.”