Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared that dining rooms can reopen to 50% capacity on Friday. Many restaurants will remain closed, though, and many diners still don’t feel entirely comfortable with the idea of eating in enclosed spaces with strangers.
But, if you’re like me, you’ve grown tired of thumbing through cookbooks and tapping into your inner Thomas Keller. Not to mention all the dish washing. While I spent the second half of March and the first half of April paranoid about the safety of takeout dining, guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and time for restaurants and trailers to fine tune their safety measures have made me increasingly comfortable with takeout.
When choosing where to order food to go, it’s important to consider dishes that will travel well, like sushi, Thai food, Tex-Mex, pizza and barbecue, and be mindful of dishes that might not hold up as well to time spent steaming in a box (looking at you, creamy pastas).
As part of a new series called Takeout Treasures, I will introduce you to some of the excellent takeout I’m trying around town and give you a sense of how the takeout process works at these places.
A word of advice: Please make sure to leave a healthy tip, if you’re able. And if a restaurant includes a service fee, consider adding a little cash on top or asking the employees if there is a way you can tip more electronically. Service industry workers are essential, and it’s important we treat them as such. If you’re tight on money, a profuse "thank you" and some patience would probably also be welcome.
LeRoy & Lewis
Maybe you’ve read stories about love in the time of the coronavirus. Unique circumstances brought on by the pandemic force two people into a new situation, and there they find an unexpected connection that sustains them in uncertain times.
This is kinda like that. Except the two people are me and a drive-thru cheeseburger. I’d cooked a couple of cast iron burgers over the first six weeks of this new life, in which so much time is spent at home, as I mostly avoided takeout initially. But I wanted a burger from a professional. I wanted it to be safe, easy and delicious. I trusted LeRoy & Lewis to deliver on all three of those criteria.
I called in an order and arrived at the shiny blue and gold truck outside of Cosmic Coffee and Beer Garden in South Austin on one of those surreal Thursday evenings that feels like a Sunday during the Age of Corona. Partner Sawyer Lewis, who oversees the customer-facing part of the operation, asked for my name from a distance; I rolled down my window and placed my credit card on top of my car; she swiped it, returned it to my rooftop; and a few minutes later delivered the burger to the back passenger seat of my car through the window. Safe and easy? Check. And I knew immediately from the aroma that deliciousness would not be a problem.
The drive home was the longest 10 minutes I’d spent since I lost the ability to track time somewhere in mid-March. Ever wonder what it would be like if you transformed a brisket into a cheeseburger? That’s pretty much what LeRoy & Lewis has done with this burger. And since you can only buy their Akaushi brisket on the weekends, this is a pretty great hack to get it on a different day.
The team led by pitmaster Evan LeRoy grind their lush brisket trimmings, form a thick patty and cold smoke it to a rare finish. When you arrive for your order, they sear the meat hot and fast on a cast iron plancha. The result is a fatty, moist patty encased in the cobalt char you associate with brisket bark. The brisket sandwich that has transformed into a burger is stuffed into a Martin’s potato roll and hugged by a layer of American cheese for nostalgic comfort, with a tangy sauce and pickles awaking it from its campfire slumber ($14).
The truck, which ranked second among Austin barbecue operations the last time I endeavored to make such a list, operated its drive-thru operation from March 18 until last week. With Cosmic reopening its outdoor patio seating, diners can now choose to spare themselves the torturous drive home in a car filled with the allure of smoked beef. Customers can still pre-order meals for next-day pick-up (I recommend a plate of beef cheeks and citra hop sausage with sides of smoky cauliflower burnt ends and kimchi) or place call-in orders for same day pick-up.
The owners had been in the process of putting together financing for their forthcoming brick-and-mortar restaurant when cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, were first reported in Texas, but they shifted that planning to focus on a Paycheck Protection Plan loan from Keystone Bank.
LeRoy says the loan was a big help in allowing them to stay open over the past two months without having to lay off any of the truck’s eight employees. The deleterious effects of the pandemic also inspired LeRoy and his team to expand their thinking about their business model. Having already hosted a weekend of New School BBQ University classes in the winter, LeRoy & Lewis decided to expand their educational and entertainment offerings by producing short weekly video tutorials that they post on a Patreon page, to which people can subscribe for $30 a month.
They intend to bring back the New School BBQ University when travel seems more accessible and also plan to market rubs, sauces and merchandise, in addition to continuing to produce original audio and video content for barbecue lovers.
"Everything you see people doing in the barbecue space, we want to be involved with that, because we have a lot of ideas," LeRoy said.
The drive-thru burger was just one example.
Information: LeRoy & Lewis. 121 Pickle Road. 512-945-9882, leroyandlewis.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Cosmic Coffee and Beer Garden opens at noon, so LeRoy & Lewis offers curbside only until noon when they open.
OK, so you make a really mean ribeye at home. You’ve learned to bake sourdough bread and have even dusted off that pasta maker you’ve used twice in the last five years.
But can you make sushi? Do you have the knife skills? Do you understand how to cure fish? Where are you buying quality rice these days? And do you have an understanding of how to season that rice with just the right amount of vinegar?
Oh, that vinegar. It’s one of the differentiating factors that make a sushi takeout experience from Kyoten so spectacular. Chef Sarah Cook, a veteran of Sway and Lenoir, trained under Kyoten chef Otto Phan, who relocated to Chicago last year, and last May she reopened the sushi restaurant in the Mueller development. And the flavor profiles taste very familiar.
While the intimate restaurant under Phan and then again under Cook drew raves for its omakase experience, Kyoten got its start serving takeout from an East Austin trailer. So, in a sense, the pandemic has brought the business back to its roots.
I’ve cured some fish and made attempts at sashimi while sheltering from home, but nothing I did came close to giving me the tingles as the vibrant chirashi bowl from Kyoten. A selection of thinly slice fish sake-cured madai, hamachi toro, New Zealand salmon and aged bluefin toro fans out across a bed of sushi rice popped with vinegar that brings your tastebuds to attention. The minerality of a soft egg and the clean oceanic rush of sake-cured salmon roe centered in the bowl elevate things to symphonic ecstasy ($20).
You can order the bowls, rolls and a selection of beverages online and set up a pick-up time between 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. You pay online, and when you arrive, your meal is placed by a gloved and masked attendant in a cart outside of the restaurant’s door. Cook says she hopes to reintroduce the omakase experience once she deems it safe for both guests and staff.
Information: Kyoten Sushiko. 4600 Mueller Blvd., Suite 1035. 512-607-4404, kyotensushiko.com.
Hours: Pickup between 5 and 7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
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