Now is the time for takeout — with COVID-19 cases mounting at a very scary rate, a dine-in shutdown back in place and outdoor seating only getting colder, there’s not much choice in the matter. In this dire situation, our restaurants really need our support, as much as we can give. In return, they give us bright spots in these dark days — different flavors and a blessed break from our own cooking. Here are three places with new tastes to try, each offering their own kind of comfort and joy.
The sheer joy of Secret Congee
4405 Wallingford Ave. N., Seattle; secretcongee.com
I’m that weirdo eating congee in my car parked in front of Wally Pets. We must take our joy where we can these days.
Secret Congee is a sidewalk stand in front of Wallingford juice bar Juisala. Opened up in the car for a peek and a photo on a cold, rainy midday, the tom yum congee looked and smelled beautiful. One of five huge shrimp was breaching, while little heaps of chopped scallion and cilantro rested on the surface, along with a slick of deep-orange, promisingly oily tom yum sauce. Steam wafted all these scents upward, along with the toastiness of fried garlic and richness of chicken bone broth, in which Secret Congee cooks jasmine rice to make the thick, creamy base of its name. It was all nice and hot. Eat it right now, I thought. Why not?
Eating congee in the car twice turned out to be highlights of last week, for Secret Congee is so, so good. All the seafood is sustainable, including the 3 ounces of lump meat stuffed into the garlic blue crab congee. The chicken is organic, while traditional pork balls are made with all-natural meat. Anyone still prone to balk at the expense — $10 to $16 per order — should note that each bowlful is 24 ounces. Someone named Paul from Secret Congee let me know via email that they pay their employees well. “Above all else,” he said, “we think congee is an art that deserves better-perceived values.”
Who are these Secret Congee artists? According to Paul, it’s a group of chefs who were laid off and came together as a result of the pandemic. Some of them worked at Congeez in the Uwajimaya food court before it closed, while others came from popular Isan Thai spot Pestle Rock and upscale Italian Agrodolce. The secret, which is a little gimmicky, is that they’re not giving their names — “Everybody wants the credit to go to Secret Congee,” the email said.
Good enough, Paul and whoever else you are! Your youtiao crispy fried dough is also a paragon of the form — golden and just-right greasy, soft and crispy and chewy all at once. Everybody should eat that in the car, too.
The honor and the love of the new menu at The Gerald
5210 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-432-9280; thegeraldseattle.com
When Wes Yoo bought the Ballard bar called The Gerald in 2018, the place served nicer-cocktail-lounge fare: truffle popcorn, poutine, “The Burger.” At first, he says, “Changing the menu to be more Korean was a slow work in progress.” Then came COVID-19, “along with the world protesting for an American man who suffered injustice.” He reflected on the future and what he wanted to stand for. Businesswise, he “hated the feeling of complete loss of control.” Under stress, he found himself seeking comfort in the foods he loved growing up.
“I wanted to represent my culture with the small platform I have,” Yoo says. This fall, The Gerald became his place “to challenge the status quo of Korean cuisine being one of three things only: hole in the wall, K-BBQ, and/or Asian fusion with hints of Korean.” In his new menu, he says, “Every dish we do connects back to my life, story and culture.”
The food Yoo is sharing tastes absolutely great. His jeon ($8), the savory pancake, is thicker and cushier than some — you kind of want a giant one to lie down on — but with the edges still crisped. Yoo’s skewer of pork belly ($6.50) gets oven-roasted for layers of lush meat, melty fat and crunchy skin. Tteokbokki ($8), which Yoo calls number one in both street food and comfort food — he’d get it on the way home from school in Seoul — is a magnificent mass of chewy log-shaped rice cake, strips of spongy fish cake and squeaky cheese curds submerged in bright brick-red, spicy sauce, covered in yet more melted cheese. Yoo says the tteokkalbi plate ($18), as a traditional royal dish, represents the other end of his menu’s range: It’s beef short-rib and pork belly, ground in-house and kalbi-marinated, then artfully formed back around the rib bones. And do not miss Yoo’s version of the roasted potatoes “commonly sold in bustling highway rest stops in Korea — always my favorite since childhood.”
Then there’s the comfort of to-go drinks: The Gerald still takes cocktails seriously, now incorporating soju and makgeolli, while the SoMaek Kit ($22) is superfun, complete with four little glasses for mixing your Hite beer and soju. And Yoo says there’s more goodness on the way: Hearty soups, family-style meal kits and boozy eggnogs to look forward to, right when we need comfort and joy the most.
The excellent deal of Family Meals
This new delivery service drops heat-and-eat dinners on your doorstep — ideal for right now, and also one of the best deals out there. For your full-house pod or lots of leftovers, the gargantuan “XL” size feeds six to eight for $60, delivery included; regular-size serves two or three for $35, and it’s also a lot of food.
Most importantly, the chefs behind Family Meals know their stuff. Jesse Smith created a great fried chicken sandwich at Pinky’s Kitchen, then helmed very popular Sisters and Brothers, with experience at beloved Bizzarro before that. Just joining the operation is Maximillian Petty of Eden Hill, Eden Hill Provisions and multiple James Beard nominations. Making delivery dinners that travel well and taste delicious is their new business, and by making big batches, they can provide restaurant quality at way-less-than-restaurant-prices.
Family Meals are full meals, like “Everyone Loves Chicken Enchiladas,” which comes with Spanish rice, refried beans, chips and homemade salsa — and the name doesn’t lie, because they keep selling out too quickly to get any. I can vouch for the fresh pappardelle pasta with oxtail ragu, more of a meal kit since, sensibly, you cook the pasta yourself — the noodles came out chewy yet delicate, the sauce lush with tons of falling-apart meat. An accompanying kale Caesar circumvented excess healthiness with almost as much grana padano as green leafiness, while dinner rolls had hidden troves of buttery pesto. Another supper of doro wat, the Ethiopian chicken stew, was only mildly spicy, but came with pickled shredded cabbage, braised chard and tomato jam to make each bite interesting — and Family Meals sourced extra-flavorful injera from Amy’s Merkato in Hillman City, supporting that spot, too.
Smith and Petty have all sorts of other offerings to try, from “Perfect Lasagna” to katsu beef Wellington. Guest chef dinners are in the works, and soon beer and wine will be available to add to Family Meals for the grown-ups — at retail prices and with a pandemic on, might as well!