We should all be takeout experts by now, but we’re not. Collective magical thinking made us believe that our cars are like that DeLorean in the film “Back to the Future.” If we just drive fast enough from the restaurant to our home, food will go back in time to the moment the chef placed it in a box and it will taste perfect.
After a year of this delusional thinking, it’s clear that Doc Brown isn’t driving our car, there’s no flux capacitor, and takeout food gets cold and absorbs moisture as it cools.
We need to rethink takeout.
Food placed in a box, transported in a car, and then eaten out of a box with plastic utensils isn’t going to taste like it does at a restaurant. Although pandemic safety regulations were recently loosened to allow limited-capacity indoor dining, many of us don’t feel ready for that yet. We can still enjoy restaurant food, however, if we adjust our thinking about takeout and make a little effort.
The first rule of this new takeout ethos: There’s no shame in eating in a car parked outside the restaurant. It’s clear that many great restaurant meals don’t travel well. Steak, sushi, Thai salad rolls and tacos all lose their deliciousness during a car ride.
Eating in the car is an American tradition. This fad reached its apex in the 1950s when every town in America had a local spot for people to cruise around in their large automobiles and eat burgers and fries. In-car eating space can be increased by shifting the seat back. Food trays that hook on the steering wheel, available from Amazon and Walmart, elevate food off the lap and create a more civilized dining experience. Bringing real utensils and a plate enhance enjoyment and are necessary for chewy items that plastic utensils can’t cut, like steak. Candlelight, flowers and a linen napkin are optional.
The second rule for the new takeout: Food must be reheated if you don’t eat it right away while parked outside the restaurant. Food that travels in a car, especially in winter, will get cold. A short time in the oven can bring some dishes back to their original restaurant quality.
Keri Buhman, owner of C’est La Vie Cafe in Hazel Dell, perfected the art of take-and-bake foods to keep her business going during the pandemic. Through trial and error she’s found that casseroles, baked pastas, and stewed or slow-cooked meats reheat well. She recommends covering these items in foil and heating them in the oven at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, then without the foil for 10 minutes. Add more heating time if necessary.
“It’s better to not overcook,” she said.
Buhman turns on her oven as she’s leaving to pick up takeout food. When she returns with her food, the oven is at the right temperature for a quick reheat. (She only does this when someone else is at home to keep an eye on the oven.)
Mark Lopez, owner of Crave Catering and Gather & Feast Farm, also has mastered the art of reheating food, both as a caterer and to maximize his own takeout experiences. He’s developed very specific techniques for pho, burritos and pizza.
Lopez has a multistep reheating process for pho. First of all, it’s important that the noodles and broth aren’t packed in the same container. Most restaurants (like Pho Vi Van in east Vancouver) separately package these items, but it’s worth asking before ordering.
Lopez heats the broth to a boil on the stove. Then he puts the noodles in a big bowl. He adds a bit of broth to the noodles to loosen them. The noodle bowl goes into the microwave for about 30 seconds to moisten and activate the noodles. To finish, he pours the hot broth onto the noodles and adds toppings. If it tastes bland, he sprinkles Chinese five-spice powder on top to wake it up.
“Tacos you have to eat in the car, but burritos travel,” Lopez said.
To reheat burritos, he wraps them in aluminum foil and cooks them on medium low heat in an iron skillet on the stove for about 10 minutes. The foil keeps the burrito from sticking to the skillet. If the burrito is thick, he flips it and heats it on all four sides to make sure the center is cooked.
He heats up pizza in the toaster. He recommends placing the toaster under a stove hood for ventilation to avoid setting off a smoke alarm. The perfect toaster pizza has minimal toppings that adhere to the pizza and won’t fall off. This method is ideal for chilled and firmed up Neapolitan pizza (like a Margherita pizza) or plain cheese pizza.
Buhman and Lopez have both gravitated toward ’90s-style pizzas for takeout during the pandemic. These are the large pies with a sturdy crust covered with non-traditional toppings like Alfredo sauce, barbecue sauce, chicken or refried beans. Vinnie’s Pizza and Juliano’s Pizzeria are two fine examples of shops offering these topping-heavy mega pies.
Both food experts recommend reheating ’90s pizza in the oven. Lopez likes to put it in a cast-iron skillet on the stove to re-crisp the crust. Then he puts the skillet in the middle rack and broils it briefly.
Buhman puts her ’90s pizza on parchment paper on a baking sheet and puts it in the oven for 5-6 minutes at 375 degrees after she returns with it from the restaurant. To reheat pizza from the fridge, she heats it at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes.
The final and most important rule: It’s OK to eat cold leftovers straight out of the refrigerator, preferably hunched over a counter or sink without utensils.
Rachel Pinsky: firstname.lastname@example.org