The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend towards food delivery via third party apps. Diners appreciate the convenience, and some people see it as a way to support restaurants when they might not feel comfortable sitting around strangers in a dining room.
Of course, food that travels in boxes comes with certain compromises. First, it’s difficult for food to arrive as hot and fresh as it would if it were served inside a restaurant. Second, delivery companies claim as much as 30 percent of each item’s cost, which cuts into a restaurant’s already thin margins.
Ghost kitchens (or cloud kitchens, as most operators seem to prefer) have emerged as a popular way to resolve these issues. As restaurants that are dedicated to delivery and to-go service, their dishes have been designed to travel, and they frequently utilize packaging that’s been designed to preserve a dish’s freshness during travel. On a similar note, the costs of delivery are built into their margins, making it a relatively guilt-free experience for customers.
The list below includes some of Houston’s established cloud kitchen concepts as well as a few promising newcomers that have emerged on the scene in the last month or so. The Inner Loop focus reflects what’s available to me within a typical delivery radius, but the success of these concepts will undoubtedly spur them to expand their reach.
Click Virtual Food Hall
Chef Gabriel Medina’s cloud kitchen stands apart with both its diversity and its consistently high quality. Click offers 10 different concepts from one ordering platform — everything from burgers and pizza to Japanese curry bowls and Filipino cuisine that nods to Medina’s heritage — all carefully packed in a distinctive, gold-colored insulated bag to ensure everything arrives hot and fresh. The recent addition of dishes from two established restaurants, burger-chan and Ninja Ramen, demonstrates that the Click can serve as a viable platform for even more concepts to expand their reach.
The Courageous Chicken
Houston fast casual staple Cafe Express worked with chef Jennifer Hoffman (Leeland House) to develop this cloud kitchen concept devoted to chicken sandwiches. Currently available from the River Oaks location — but coming soon to the three other outposts — Courageous Chicken serves a supersized chicken breast with a range of sauces that include Nashville Hot, General Tso’s, and a sweet and spicy Valiente Chili Lime. A grilled option exists for those looking to save on calories, or for those looking who want to indulge in the loaded fries that come topped with bacon, jalapenos, cheddar, and three cheese sauce.
Gunso Japanese Kitchen
Yakitori Gunso may not have survived the pandemic, but its been reborn as a cloud kitchen at the Blodgett Food Hall. The menu covers a range of Japanese comfort food from takoyaki and chicken karaage to rice balls and ramen. Chicken katsu paired with a sweet and savory Japanese curry emerged as a highlight, as did the lip-smacking heat from spicy karaage.
Chefs Naoki Yoshida (Shun Japanese Kitchen) and Yosuke Motozawa have teamed up to create this lunch-only concept that operates out of the Shun Kitchen. For approximately $20-25, diners build custom, four-item bento boxes from a range of choices that include a fried item, a rice, a salad, and a protein. For example, protein choices include chicken or beef teriyaki, stir-fried tofu, grilled salmon, and a Japanese hamburger. The five fried items range from egg rolls to cornflake-crusted pork katsu. Offering a diverse array of choices and slick packaging helps elevate the experience.
Rudyard’s chef Anthony Calleo showcases his affection for hot dogs with this new concept. Built around massive, half-pound all-beef dogs, Horn Dogs offers a number of toppings that range from traditional Texas chili with cheddar, onions, and mustard to a Japanese katsu dog that’s panko-crusted and fried then topped with kewpie mayo and tonkatsu sauce. Calleo offers a few different sides, but choosing Rudyard’s tater tots is always a solid option.
Rather than gripe about Houston’s relative lack of good sandwiches, Riel chef Ryan Lachaine took matters into his hands and launched this lunch concept. Louie’s covers an array of cravings with options ranging from a vegetarian mushroom melt to classics like the turkey club and chicken parm. Thankfully, Riel’s signature butter burgers are also available. The concept has been such a success that some of the sandwiches have graduated to Riel’s happy hour menu.
Rather than attempt to open a second brick and mortar location of his Malaysian restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, Phat Eatery chef Alex Au-Yeung launched this cloud kitchen in Third Ward’s Blodgett Food Hall. Phat Kitchen’s menu offers almost all of the signature items that have made its sibling successful, including roti canai and beef rendang, as well as the dim sum dumplings Au-Yeung introduced earlier this year. Even better, Phat Kitchen also offers a full selection of dishes from Yelo, the Vietnamese concept Au-Yeung developed with chef Cuc Lam (Sing) that won’t open its own dine-in location until 2021.
Porchetta & Sandwiches
Ben McPherson takes his porchetta seriously. For the lunchtime concept he operates out of BOH Pasta & Pizza, McPherson uses pork loin from Black Hill Meats, seasons it with salsa verde and roasts it slowly. Served with a lemon-caper aioli, arugula, and sliced fennel on a ciabatta bun from Bread Man Baking Co., the end result is a juicy, satisfying combination of textures and flavors. Don’t dig on swine? The concept also offers a mix of other hot and cold sandwiches including a gooey meatball sub and a vegetarian option made with roasted eggplant.
Like burger joints or taco stands, Houston will always have room for another casual Vietnamese restaurant, provided its staple dishes like egg rolls, vermicelli bowls, and banh mi are properly delicious. This cloud kitchen (and future brick and mortar) offers a few fun twists like a roll inspired by banh xeo and the opportunity for diners to build their own goi salad with a range of proteins that range from chicken to salmon to ribeye. A location in the Blodgett Food Hall ensures efficient delivery to most of the inner loop.