It took weeks of eating frozen food for dinner for me, a professionally trained chef, to truly grasp how integral reading directions was to the task of getting food on the table in time, especially since I don’t have a microwave. I’d purchased a 10” pot pie from Pot Pie Paradise and tossed the plastic wrap, along with the directions, thinking that I’d be able to wing it. I know how to bake things, I scoffed.
Thanks to my hubris, what was supposed to be a half hour of heating time dragged on. I kept opening the oven door to check, and in so doing sabotaged the temperature in the oven just so I could stick an exploratory chopstick into the pie’s frozen interior yet again. I gave up and scavenged the directions from the garbage bin.
What I came to understand while cooking the frozen dumplings, samosas, lumpia and pizzas that I’d sourced from various restaurants is that each item was testy in its own way: Mister Jiu’s frozen potstickers don’t cook like potstickers I’d make from scratch, and dumplings from different restaurants may have totally different wrapper thicknesses and moisture levels, and thus different cook times.
Frozen food is more complicated than I thought.
While making my first batch of khinkali, the juicy dumplings from Georgian restaurant Tamari, I forgot to stir them, causing all of the delicate dough parcels to stick to the pot and tear. Their guts spewed out spectacularly, giving the boiling water a lovely mushroom scent. Instead, cooking them the Chinese way — keeping the water at a slight simmer and adding a cup of cool water whenever the pot threatened to boil — ensured intact dumplings. In that moment, my heart went out the cook at Tamari hunched over the pot, trying to baby the khinkali while also grilling sausages and baking cheese breads during dinner service.
In a way, experiencing restaurants through their frozen dishes is no less intimate than ordering their food hot and ready to eat. You get to plug into the process, and the choices that the cooks make (why lumpia are wrapped so tightly, or why pizza crusts are par-baked before topping) become much clearer. It does a lot to collapse the invisible barriers between restaurants and the diners who love them, hopefully increasing the amount of appreciation the public has for the folks behind the stoves.
Also, a quick note: Keep your eyes out for this year’s Top Restaurants list, coming out in just a few days!
On the podcast
This week on Extra Spicy, Justin Phillips and I speak with Brenda Buenviaje, the owner of eponymous restaurants Brenda’s French Soul Food, Brenda’s Meat and Three and Brenda’s in Oakland. She tells us how she’s been staying sane during the pandemic, a strategy that includes making cooking videos with her zoomer son. And Justin and I realize that our respective tastes in cooking videos are diametrically opposed! Does this spell the end to our friendship forever?
What I’m eating
Like I said up top, mostly frozen food! But not everything I tried made it onto the list, if only because of space. I liked the cheese pizza at Arthur Mac’s Tap and Snack in Oakland because it was less DiGiorno, more Red Baron, hitting that nostalgic spot with a cracker-like crust and gooey mozzarella cheese. It was like I was nine years old again, splitting a box with my cousins while watching “The Lion King.”
And the frozen food selection at Boulettes Larder in the Ferry Terminal building is so elegant. Turkish-style cabbage rolls stuffed with minced lamb were a pleasure to eat; the leaves turned silky from braising. Cabbage rolls are especially nice to get frozen, since wrapping them yourself is so time-consuming.
Finally, as a weird little treat, I bought Lao Gan Ma-flavored ice cream from Cookiebar Scoop Shop in Alameda. Mixed with a generous amount of the umami-forward chile oil from Guizhou, China, the ice cream was uncommonly savory and retained much of the toasty flavor of the chiles. It’s hard to imagine eating this novelty for dessert, though many people enjoy adding a dollop of chile oil to their ice cream to add a silky texture to it, much like soft serve with extra virgin olive oil.
• The Afghan comfort food dish known as chainaki is traditionally served out of a teapot full of lamb and aromatics; the resulting soup is poured over bowls of torn, tandoori-cooked bread. I’d never heard of this, but, as Anna Rahmanan describes it in Whetstone, it sounds fantastic.
• Travel sounds like a torture these days, but Condé Nast Traveler’s wonderful collection of 50 cuisines worth trekking around the United States for perked me right up. Each vignette is written by a different expert, and each surprised me with their depth. Far from the typical “get lobster rolls in Maine” stories, you’ll learn about Connecticut’s Caribbean diaspora and Chicago’s rich Nigerian restaurant scene.
• This story on the pandemic’s financial pressure on the food industry is tough to read, but it’s essential for knowing what the future might portend for restaurants in the Bay Area. If businesses were lucky enough to get in on loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, they’re now facing the question of what to do once the money runs out. Those funds, allocated with the assumption that the pandemic would end and the economy would rebound in just few months, were required to be spent in entirety over the summer. Restaurateurs are pushing for more federal relief, but if it doesn’t happen… it’s bad news.
Bite Curious is a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, delivered to inboxes on Monday mornings. Follow along on Twitter: @Hooleil