One of the things we love most about food is wine. Specifically, the wine you get to drink while dining out at your favorite restaurant, be it your go-to local joint or the fanciest place in town. This is wine selected by someone who knows what they’re doing — a professional who understands how to decode a label and what kind of grapes will make your food taste that much better. So what if, we wondered, we made it possible to experience that kind of hospitality right at home?
Get to know Eater Wine Club, a monthly wine subscription box. Our extensive network of local editors have teamed up with sommeliers and beverage directors from some of our favorite restaurants, bars, and shops across the country to curate a new experience each month, with ever-changing themes and bottles (two or four per box, your choice!) and plenty of perks. Sign up and you’ll get a box full of surprising and highly drinkable wines on your doorstep every month, plus an exclusive newsletter and an invite to our monthly wine party.
For March 2021, our wine curator is Rania Zayyat, the Texas-based wine director behind East Austin’s Bufalina. Rania’s theme is inspired by the wanderlust we all may be feeling these days, especially with winter still upon us: island wines from the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
So join the club and invite your friends — from the one who geeks out over cool labels and funky tastes to the one who just wants you to hand them a glass of something delicious that’ll make their food pop. Sign up for Eater Wine Club here — we’ll see you at the party.
For almost 30 years, the humming blue-and-white truck of Mariscos Ruben has been a reliable presence at the corner of Calle Ocho and Quintana Roo in the Baja border town of Tijuana, Mexico. Mirta Rodriguez has manned the now world-famous rig for just as long (“except during this pandemic, which has shut down almost everything,” she says), after a temporary move from Sonora to help out with her mother’s business — a stand specializing in a Sonoran soup made with caguama, loggerhead turtle — turned out to be permanent. “Tijuana received me and our mariscos with open arms,” she says, and they never left.
(Hear more of the story behind Mariscos Ruben on the Tijuana episode of Eater’s Guide to the World, now streaming on Hulu.)
Rodriguez’s unique style of mariscos — fresh cocktails, tostadas, tacos, and soups that showcase Baja’s incredible seafood — earned her leagues of fans on both sides of the border, but she’s become just as well known for her vibrant house-made salsas, each more complex than the next, including a particularly fiery one made with small Sonoran chiltepin peppers that’s perfect for spicing up the seafood cocktails served in stone molcajetes.
Mirta won’t spill the secret behind her salsas (we asked, we begged, we pleaded), so instead, Eater staff compiled a list of our own favorite salsas from across the U.S. and Mexico. While nothing will match the feeling of biting into a fresh clam tostada splashed with one of Rodriguez’s signature sauces, a chip dipped into any of these store-bought salsas won’t disappoint.
The Hottest Salsas for Home Cooking, According to Eater:
Ruth’s No5 Salsa Tatemada, San Diego A fixture at the Little Italy, Hillcrest, and Pacific Beach farmers markets in San Diego, Ruth’s No5 Salsa is run by Ruth Murillo, whose family recipes are influenced by the Northern Mexican state of Sonora. Her version of salsa Tatemada is a chunky, fire-roasted mix of charred tomatoes, serrano peppers, cilantro, green onion, salt, and garlic. The smoky salsa makes a great dip for chips, condiment for grilled carne asada tacos, or topping for sunny-side-up eggs in the classic breakfast dish huevos rancheros. — Candice Woo, Eater San Diego editor
El Machete 1924, Los Angeles LA-based El Machete 1924 has a line of handcrafted salsas, and all of them are brilliant. They’re like the homemade Mexican-American version of the best supermarket salsa, and lately I’ve been picking them up at the Hollywood Farmers Market. The amazing San Marzano salsa roja is now a staple in my fridge. — Bill Esparza, Eater contributor
Honey Bee La Colmena Hot Salsa, Detroit People from across the city visit Honey Bee La Colmena, a Mexican market in Detroit’s Hubbard-Richard neighborhood, for the sole purpose of grabbing a takeout container of its mild pico de gallo or hot salsa and fresh guacamole. The hot version is a fairly simple recipe with tomatoes and spicy peppers that’s just the right balance of chunky and thick for scooping onto a tortilla chip. — Brenna Houck, reporter for Eater.com, Eater Detroit editor
Banyan Foods Kimchi Salsa, Houston Houston’s Banyan Foods, the self-described “oldest tofu company in Texas,” has made a name for itself locally by pairing Asian staples with Tex-Mex food, as with its tofu tamales. One of the newest additions to the lineup is kimchi salsa — a perfectly spicy sauce made from the company’s locally fermented, unpasteurized kimchi. I like to put it on my breakfast tacos. — Brittanie Shey, Eater Dallas associate editor
They’ve made a name for themselves in the D.C. area for their pickles (try the gin-spiked spears), but on a recent visit to the Falls Church farmers market, I discovered that No. 1 Sons makes an excellent salsa verde as well. I like to make salsas for myself at home, but I find that I never quite get the texture I’m looking for when I attempt salsa verde. This one has the right loose consistency, good acidity, and just enough heat. Put it on leftover tacos, eat it with chips, or use it as a sauce over grilled fish. — Missy Frederick, Eater cities director
I’m obsessed with salsa seca, a dry, crunchy mix of seeds, chiles, and spices that adds as much texture as flavor to anything you put it on. Tienda Salsita’s oil-based salsa güey originates in Vera Cruz and is like a cross between a salsa seca and Sichuan-style chile crisp, with garlic, chiles, and sesame seeds submerged in olive oil. It’s full of heat, smoke, and crunch, and I love it as a standalone sauce on fish or meat. — Lesley Suter, Eater travel editor
Buying a $10 jar of salsa can admittedly make anyone feel foolish, but American Spoon’s dried chile salsa dances on the tongue with a robust amount of heat, supplanted by just a dash of sweet smoke. It’s quickly become a household favorite and is great with chips or a rare skirt steak. — Ashok Selvam, Eater Chicago senior editor
Arriba labels promising “fire-roasted” salsa do not lie. The Houston-based brand sells red sauces in varying degrees of heat that all boast deep, smoky flavor, blackened bits of tomato skin, and a thin but not soupy consistency that holds its own alongside table sauces from Tex-Mex restaurants all over town. — Gabe Hiatt, Eater DC editor
Whenever I head down to Ensenada to visit the famous La Guerrerense mariscos cart and restaurant, I always grab some salsas to take home. (It also has branches in Mexico City and Monterrey.) I use them with all kinds of mariscos, shellfish, seafood cocktails, and ceviches at home when I’m missing La Guerrerense. — Bill Esparza, Eater contributor
In the U.S., barbecue is generally associated with states that sit farther south. Much like distinctive regional music, fashion, and colloquialisms spoken in Southern accents, barbecue is a method of communication, letting locals tell visitors and new neighbors what’s possible around here, and how folks like it done.
However, if the South is so good at low-and-slow meat cooking, shouldn’t a state as southern as Georgia have a recognizable style of barbecue to call its own and parameters to define it?
It appears most people agree that Georgia barbecue exists. But like an old, trusty sauce mop, the answer is a little messy — and like other regional barbecue traditions, Georgia’s style varies depending on the person describing it. Perhaps Georgia barbecue is most identifiable by the heart, soul, and history blended into its preparation. These modifiers may be less immediately distinctive than twangy vinegars or a thickened tomato base, but the importance of these ingredients in recognizing the flavors of Georgia’s barbecue runs no less deep.
“I think there is a claim to what Georgia barbecue is,” says Texas native Jonathan Fox. Fox and his twin brother, Justin, own Atlanta’s popular barbecue restaurant Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q in the city’s Candler Park neighborhood. But to find what could be considered true Georgia barbecue, Fox says, people need to venture outside of Atlanta.
“Atlanta’s a tough city. It’s a transplant city. The further you get out of the city, you see more of what I would call ‘Georgia barbecue.’ You kind of lose that true sense of what barbecue is in larger metropolitan areas,” Fox explains. “I don’t think, unfortunately, Georgia would rank up there with your Carolinas, or your Memphis, your Texas.”
Fox’s statement may seem obvious to those who have marked the absence of ingredients most associated with Georgia, like peaches, pecans, or even Vidalia onions, as a statewide barbecue throughline.
Harrison Sapp, co-owner and pitmaster at renowned coastal Georgia restaurant Southern Soul Barbecue on St. Simons Island, agrees with Fox. He believes Georgia barbecue is more about what locals want, rather than strict standards for smoking and sauce-making. But Sapp does think pork is at the top of the Georgia barbecue food pyramid.
For Sapp, who only started cooking brisket 10 years ago, it’s all about pork butts at picnics, since that was his experience with Georgia barbecue growing up.
“My version of it would be a cross between Augusta and Waynesboro [Georgia,] what we have around here,” says Sapp. “I grew up here, and my dad’s from Waynesboro. To be honest with you, the flavors I have [at Southern Soul] were all to make a 7-year-old like it. If the kids like it, the parents will go.”
Judd Foster of South of Heaven BBQ in Carrollton says he discovered the existence of Georgia barbecue through his customers. “You have your staples. We serve brisket, I do pork belly, chopped chicken… a wide variety of things. But my wife Kate and I learned quickly that if someone comes up and says, ‘I want a plate of barbecue,’ they want pulled pork.”
The Fosters catered barbecue together in Atlanta for three years before opening their restaurant in Carrollton, 50 miles west of the city. The rent is more reasonable there, and the small-town vibe gave them space to experiment with their take on barbecue.
A native of upstate New York, Foster learned outdoor cooking as a kid, making maple syrup with his grandfather. Foster says he had his own smoker by the time he was 10 years old. The children, he says, are the future of barbecue. He believes each dish should be as impactful to them as the dishes that remind people of what they ate growing up with family. Kate Foster, who hails from Atlanta, agrees. “We strive to be the place where people say, ‘Oh my God, I remember going to this place when I was younger.’”
However, the Fosters did put a taste of ATL on their barbecue menu, with a little help from Atlanta-based hip-hop duo OutKast. There’s a brisket, chopped pork, and smoked sausage sandwich called Big Boi on the menu, and Foster’s homemade beer cheese is incorporated into the restaurant’s cheesesteak, dubbed Steakonia.
Matt Coggin, managing partner at D.B.A. Barbecue in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, thinks Georgia barbecue is like a melting pot, but he’s noticed that the sweeter the sauce, the more people eat it up here in Georgia, especially in cooking battles with public tastings around the state.
Raised in Dunwoody, just north of Atlanta, Coggin believes Georgians also tend to have a pretty high threshold for smoke on their barbecue. Through early customer feedback, he learned that when D.B.A. first opened, a decade ago, people thought his barbecue wasn’t smoky enough. Coggin chalks it up to how barbecue is traditionally prepared in smaller smokehouses.
“They’re feeding a smoker all night, so you’re definitely getting a lot of smoke on [the meat]. Southern Pride, Ole Hickory smokers… you put wood on, an hour later you put more wood on, and an hour later, and an hour later, but after that you can go home. You don’t have to keep loading wood all the time.”
For Coggin, the willingness to adapt to his customers and their need for sweeter, smokier flavors in D.B.A.’s barbecue is similar to how Anna Phelps approaches her barbecue. Phelps is from Kirkwood, the east Atlanta neighborhood where her eponymous barbecue restaurant Anna’s BBQ resides. As its owner and pitmaster, Phelps believes there’s a general flavor profile found in Georgia barbecue, particularly in the dry rubs applied to slabs of pork ribs. “We use a simple rub,” she says, referencing not only her restaurant’s recipe but those of other area restaurants. “Garlic salt, seasoning salt, a little sugar, some people use a little cinnamon. It’s a Southern style, with Southern flavor.”
Like Coggin, Phelps thinks smokier meats are Georgia’s calling card. Her father’s side of the family hails from Greensboro — a small town located between Augusta and Atlanta. She feels the increased levels of smoke found in Georgia barbecue are due to the tried-and-true tradition of backyard charcoal cooking. That, she believes, is a connecting point that shows up in barbecue across the state.
“Everywhere I go there’s smoke,” Phelps laughs. “Everybody’s got a little bit of a different taste, but I don’t think it’s that different when you get outside Atlanta.”
Kate Foster feels there’s one other factor to consider when evaluating what makes barbecue recognizable to Georgians: the sides.
She says it’s all about potato salad and coleslaw for patrons of South of Heaven BBQ in Carrollton. But Coggin says those sides don’t sell as well at his restaurant in Atlanta. The star of the sides at D.B.A. is the mac and cheese, which better be close to that of a Southern grandmother’s mac and cheese to pass as acceptable.
Judd Foster thinks Georgia’s love for family meals and Sunday suppers make mac and cheese, cornbread, and collard greens mandatory add-ons for barbecue menus around the state. He also feels there are dishes that cross state lines, and whose origins become harder to discern. One of his favorite barbecue sides is chicken mull — a cream-based chicken stew often associated with the Carolinas. “You don’t see it that much, but when I see it, I get excited because it’s so good.”
Phelps says mac and cheese, smoked ham-infused collard greens, and baked beans are the biggest sellers at her Kirkwood barbecue restaurant. For patrons of Southern Soul, it’s all about the Hoppin’ John (a savory combination of black-eyed peas, rice, and fatty pork like bacon) due to St. Simon’s sea island locality along the Georgia coast. He reserves his highest praise for collards as a side. “Those are definitely Georgia. You can’t swing a dead cat without seeing ’em.”
For those expecting a mention of a certain super-meaty tomato stew named for the town of Brunswick, there’s wide agreement that it’s a Georgia dish, although it’s now commonly accepted that the stew’s origin story is a bit fuzzy. An inscription found on an old 25-gallon iron pot in Brunswick claims the stew was first made in it on St. Simon’s Island in 1898, 12 miles northeast of the town. A similar claim has been made in Brunswick County, Virginia, where its origins can supposedly be traced back to 1828 and the chef of a state legislator who created the stew for a hunting expedition.
Georgia barbecue could be seen as amalgamation, taking some of the best of what Southern barbecue has to offer and putting it all on one plate. Georgia touches the borders of four states known for barbecue: Tennessee and the baby-back ribs of Memphis slathered in thick, sweet sauces; South Carolina’s tangy mustard blends; the peppery vinegar sauces of North Carolina; and the zesty mayo-based white sauces of Alabama barbecue.
Whether Georgia has its own distinct style of barbecue is still rightly up for debate, but one could loosely characterize it as super-smoky, pork-driven plates paired with homey Southern sides of mac and cheese, cornbread, and smoked ham-infused collards.
Mike Jordan is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers food and beverage for Eater Atlanta, Atlanta magazine, Good Beer Hunting, and Thrillist, where he was the founding Atlanta editor. Jordan is currently the editor-in-chief for online Atlanta culture publication Butter ATL. His work has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone magazine, and Playboy.
22 Essential Atlanta Barbecue Restaurants to Know [EATL]
The pandemic has made dining as we previously knew it impossible, and serving customers outside has been one somewhat promising lifeline. So have some food trucks, with an inherently outdoor nature, as well to-go cocktails enjoyed by drinkers on the go or in parks.
But none of those are well positioned for crappy winter weather — and as has been widely observed, the solutions that might help restaurants adjust to winter don’t come cheap.
We brought together Eater editors Monica Burton, Brenna Houck, and Ashok Selvam for our Eater Talks event series to break down all the specific challenges restaurants face this season as well as the array of creative solutions. Below are lightly edited excerpts from their conversation, moderated by Eater editor Madeleine Davies, as well as a full video recording of the talk.
Restaurants are making moves to make winter outdoor dining doable.
Monica Burton,based in NYC: “I’ve seen [the plastic dome] ‘igloos’, I’ve seen cabanas — these are the things that are popping up recently…. I’ve also started to see some heat lamps pop up to extend that further.”
Brenna Houck, based in Detroit: “A lot of places [in Michigan] have also installed takeout windows, which is kind of an easy way to do grab-and-go stuff if you’re on foot and take it to a park bench and eat if you’re outside. And definitely a lot of patio fireplaces and patio heaters are starting to pop up everyone, in addition to the domes.”
Ashok Selvam, based in Chicago: “Food trucks, which have never been a big part of the landscape in Chicago — I’ve seen a couple of restaurants throw in their efforts toward that, thinking it’s more mobile.”
But many outdoor solutions are an expensive gamble that many restaurants can’t afford.
Houck: “The cost of installing these things is pretty high. I spoke to one company that manufactures these ‘garden igloos,’ as they’re called, these plastic domes, and they have had to hike prices because of just the nature of the pandemic right now and costs of all sorts of goods are going up. So they cost about $1,200 to begin with, and if you’re considering all the things that go into that to make those places comfortable, like blankets or a heater — those are all pretty big-ticket investments that now all sorts of restaurants around the country that didn’t normally try to have outdoor seating are now clamoring to get…
You also have to think about how many people are going to be willing to go and sit out there, and is the cost going to balance out the benefit of having those spaces? A lot of places around here [in Detroit] take reservations in advance for those igloos and charge a flat fee to rent them, and that’s a way to judge how many people want to come and sit in your igloo, to help the business determine the cost of that space for a certain amount of time. But for other sorts of seating situations, it’s kind of a toss-up.”
Selvam: “These plastic domes are so pricey. I don’t know if restaurants other than the bigger groups will be able to afford it. We’re seeing them in downtown Chicago, but in the neighborhoods, on the North and South sides, not so much.”
Houck: “It’s also really unpredictable, if you’re going to invest thousands of dollars in all this outdoor seating equipment and then suddenly an [official] at the state level says it’s not safe for anyone to be dining outdoors right now. Then you’ve still invested these thousands of dollars in this equipment that you no longer can use… and that is a gamble that some people are not willing to take because they just do not have the financial ability to do it.”
Ultimately, the most realistic solution may be turning back to takeout, in its various forms.
Selvam: “Tomorrow, indoor dining in [Chicago] is going to be shut down. The governor announced that earlier this week. So it’s really going to be delivery and takeout that’s going to drive sales again.”
Houck: “I’ve seen quite a few places are now investing in takeout… [especially] some businesses are trying to get around these third-party apps that obviously charge a lot to individual businesses to deliver the food from the restaurant to your house. So some businesses are trying to hire employees and invest in their own vans and start delivering food themselves. That’s another way that people are trying to strategize around this cold weather situation — some places are shutting down dine-in service and then transitioning back to a takeout-only situation just for the winter, kind of going dormant but still keeping their kitchens open.”
Burton: “It’s been really great to see restaurants do meal kits and more upscale takeout. I’m even seeing restaurants offer wine clubs, which will bring in more revenue for them.”
Houck: “I’m seeing more businesses do Thanksgiving to-go packages than I’ve seen in past years — because I think people are so tired of cooking and also because [the restaurants] aren’t preparing for all these holiday parties and aren’t getting those bookings anymore. Also the holiday pop-up bars that it seems we have every year now are turning into to-go cocktails, because that’s a legal thing we can do now in Michigan. I’ve also seen [restaurants and bars offer] different kind of packages — like fun ways to make a nice movie night, or something like that — things that try to making staying home more special.”
Burton: “When it comes to meal kits, I just got one from Xi’an Famous Foods where I got to hand-pull my own noodles at home, which is really fun and makes a great gift or just fun thing to do. I think a lot of restaurants meals that go beyond regular takeout that really add variety to your pandemic dining in a way that’s fun and not-sad-takeout.
One of the nicer things that’s happened to me during the pandemic is that my friends will send me food or send me drinks if I’m having a bad week or just because. And going into the holiday season, that’s a great way to continue to support restaurants: Send your friends food and drinks and nice things.”
Now that we are over the sourdough-and-regrowing-scallions part of the pandemic, but in no way over the actual pandemic, we must prepare for The Hunkering. Every winter is a time for stews, roasts, and hearty pasta bakes, but this winter it feels extra important, both because most of us are going to be indoors way more than any previous season, and have completely lost the energy to do anything but throw a bunch of stuff in a pot. Which obviously means it’s time to break out the Instant Pots.
A few years ago it seemed like electric multicookers, especially the Instant Pot, may have just been a fad. But the fact that in one appliance you can cook anything from soup to pudding to bread makes it pretty ideal for cooking during quarantine fatigue. Eater’s staffers rounded up our favorite go-to Instant Pot recipes, perfect for the many nights when you’re in the mood for something delicious, but you know, wanting to do as little as possible to make it happen. And as Eater Dallas and Eater Houston editor Amy McCarthy noted, you could always go with “just some fucking chicken breasts,” and let the machine do the rest.
Beef barley soup: This is the first that comes to mind. It’s basically a textbook version of this classic soup, and perfect for chilly weather. It’s low-lift, reasonably quick to put together, and freezes well. — Missy Frederick, cities director
Dakbokkeumtang: I make this recipe when I’m craving a savory chicken dish with the volume turned up. All that delicious flavor comes from the sauce. It’s a perfect balance of sweet and spicy from gochujang and sugar. Doenjang and oyster sauce adds another layer of depth. Typically to make this Korean comfort dish, you would need to watch over the pot, making sure that the chicken pieces are soaking up the sauce. But everything is done in the Instant Pot, so the result is fall-off-the-bone, tender chicken with potatoes that just break apart with no effort at all. Also, who doesn’t love a dump-everything-and-press-the-button recipe?! — James Park, social media manager
Mac and cheese: I make this one once a week when I’m lazy and cooking sounds hard. I use whatever cheese is in the fridge, add a little brown mustard to the mix, and usually skip the milk or add it at the very end. Would suggest you grate the mozzarella or it becomes a blob. — Brenna Houck, editor at Eater Detroit
Chinese poached whole chicken: Basically, I get a whole chicken every week, and I got tired of roasting it. This recipe is a really easy — not entirely foolproof, but a good enough way to poach a chicken whole in about 40 to 50 minutes, with not too much work on my part. You can use it specifically as white-cut chicken over rice with, say, a ginger scallion sauce, but just as often I pull the meat off the carcass and use it for meals throughout the week. Two caveats: You really do need an instant-read thermometer to tell when it’s done, and I find it’s much better to salt the chicken 24 hours in advance (I use the method in Salt Fat Acid Heat), so it has enough taste. And after poaching the chicken and pulling off the meat, I often toss the carcass right back into its cooking liquid, cook it on manual for another 60 minutes, and end up with a bunch of chicken stock. — Meghan McCarron, special correspondent
Kosha mangsho: This is a traditional Bengali goat or lamb stew in a heavily spiced, yogurt gravy, and it’s intensely rich and comforting. This recipe uses a pressure cooker to save time, but on the offchance you landed on this page and don’t have an Instant Pot or the like, you can still just simmer it in a large pot. — Jaya Saxena, staff writer
Lemongrass coconut chicken: The sauce is unbelievably tasty for just a few ingredients and it comes together so quickly. The labor to flavor ratio makes it one of my go-tos when I get bored with cooking or can’t be bothered to put in much effort. It’s also great over rice or any other grain. — Brittanie Shey, Eater Houston and Eater Dallas associate editor
Basic chicken noodle soup: I make a basic chicken noodle soup in the Instant Pot probably every week in the winter: The base recipe is two chicken breasts, a carton and a half of broth, a few cups (I eyeball it) roughly chopped diced celery, carrot, and onion, and whatever spices you want. Cook everything together on high pressure for 25 mins. You can quick-release the pressure and remove the chicken breasts, and shred them — while you’re shredding, set the pot’s saute function so the broth remains boiling and add egg noodles. Once the noodles are cooked, dump the shredded chicken back in and you’re done! This is perfect because frozen chicken works just as well (and at the same cook time), and you can experiment with any leafy greens at the end (throw them in when you add the noodles) and any noodle types you want. — Erin DeJesus, lead editor, Eater.com
Pork chile verde: This recipe is very good; I found it last year when I had a truckload of tomatillos from my garden. It is a great comfort food and works well as stew or tacos. — Brenna Houck, Editor at Eater Detroit
On my first visit to Eater’s New York office, where I was interviewing for this job, I made a point of trying to find the kitchen as I wandered the halls looking for the conference room I’d been told to wait in. I needed to know what kinds of snacks my potential employer offered. If I got the job, would I have access to unlimited granola bars? A coffee machine that whipped up lattes and cortados? Those terrible CBD-spiked seltzers with the good branding? Or would it be more along the lines of stale banana chips, single-serving bags of peanuts?
I never did find Eater’s snack trove. By the time I’d come on as a writer, the country was in the grips of a pandemic, we were all working remotely, and I was back in California to weather the storm.
At my previous job we’d place our snack order about once a month. Over Slack, our office manager would send the message I looked forward to more than pretty much any other: “SNACK TIME!” Our entire office descended on the group chat with the intensity of kindergarteners released at recess. Everyone in the office had their favorite (and least favorite) snack, and a curious soul always added some unfamiliar and unpromising new addition to our growing shopping list. These missteps didn’t cost us much, though, because we ordered this bounty from Nuts.com, a plain, practical website, where one can stock up on an ungodly amount of trail mix, beef jerky, and chocolate-covered almonds without breaking the bank or being weighed down with nutritional claims and shiny packaging. Once the order came, all the snacks packed in the same Nuts.com-branded zipper bags, we’d crowd around the dedicated snacking table and plunge our hands into the bags like hungry children.
Following the Great Unboxing was at least a week of back-and-forth berating of each other’s snack choices. Who in their right mind could — and actually would — choke down an entire jumbo case of Fig Newtons? What would possibly compel someone to house a family-size bag of salt and vinegar chips, so defeatingly salty that the eater’s lips crack and wrinkle like dehydrating plums? We hated each other’s snacking tastes with a passion. These moments of lovingly hurled disgust and indignation punctuated and enlivened even the most monotonous of work days.
Some days I miss this constant snacking even more than I miss dining out or going to a bar. It’s not that any one snack is unavailable to me now, or that the snacks in our monthly order were that special. But standing around a table piled high with bags of this and that, pecking at them like New York pigeons feels like a pleasure of the past now; it just isn’t something I see happening again for a long, long time. Especially not with the fear that grips me at the very thought of sharing a bag of popcorn, or the reality that it will be months before many of us make our way back into offices. Even seeing scenes of office life on TV and in movies makes me squirm in discomfort.
Spurred by nostalgia and a truly unexplainable craving for the same banana chips I’ve turned my nose up at on many occasions, I recently made my first visit to Nuts.com since joining the ranks of the nation’s WFH employees. The site’s design is as bare as ever, though my browsing did lead me to the company’s founding story, that of Poppy Sol, who sold dried nuts and fruit in a New Jersey open air market beginning in the late 1920s. (Thanks for everything, Poppy.)
Beyond this little look behind the curtains of the trusty snack provider, all was as I remembered: There’s no glitzy branding obscuring my search for new nibbles. Though the need for party-size snacks is low right now, one can still find a bargain on 30 pounds of raisins, or score a 10-pound bag of garlic bagel chips. I scrolled past all the items I’d unsuccessfully lobbied coworkers not to add to our cart — chocolate covered cherries (sweet like cough syrup, no good), organic fruit juice-flavored gummy bears (truly what is the point), and caramel coated popcorn (ordinarily perfect, terrible from this purveyor) — and went for the few snacks that colored my pre-pandemic work life: weird little nubs of half-popped popcorn that always cut the roof of my mouth, a huge bag of sticky-sweet medjool dates, fried green bean chips as brittle and snappy as kindling.
The familiar box showed up at my door a week later, my assortment of snacks rattling around inside. With the plastic bags laid out on my counter, I reignited a before-times ritual, going back and forth with regularity between desk (my dining room table) and snack counter (the only counter in my home). It’s nice to taste some of these flavors again, to crunch down on the weird airy green beans that remind me of an office full of people.
But clicking back to Nuts.com — now prominently bookmarked on my computer — I don’t gravitate to the snacks that I like. I scroll mindlessly through the many chips, candies, and dried fruits that I remain convinced no reasonable human would buy. The technicolor jumble of gummy candies shaped like slices of orange and lemon. The twisting cheddar cheese sticks one of my coworkers consumed in bulk. Rye bagel chips, dusted with a seasoning that is at first perfect, and moments later disturbing as the taste clings to every corner of your mouth. I’m not sentimental enough to really believe that if I just eat the office snacks of yesteryear, I’ll suddenly be transported back to the good ol’ days like Anton Ego tasting a nostalgia-inducing dish in Ratatouille. I don’t even know if I’ll put in another snack order, since a corner store down the street sells most of my favorites. Mostly, I’m content just strolling the undecorated virtual walls of Nuts.com, taking stock of all the snacks I’ll be sure to avoid once more when a coworker eventually — someday — passes them to me.
Get me out. Now. Like, right now. I’ve got to leave. Lace up my boots, buckle up, and go — anywhere, everywhere, just away. Fill my eyes with empty horizons, my ears with lapping waves and crackling fires, my belly with the fresh-caught, flash-fried, smoke-charred, coconut-tinged taste of vacation.
After months of sheltering ourselves from the pandemic-ravaged world outside — of enduring isolation, boredom, deaths, illness, job losses, police violence, and retaliation against cries for racial justice in the streets — escape became a universal craving, even if our access to it was not. Travel has always been a privilege, but this summer the very act of “being elsewhere” was especially elusive. Those of us who could get away did, by whatever means necessary. We hit the road, pitched tents, booked cabins, and inflated kiddie pools in our backyards to submerge our consciousness.
Here, six writers document their personal quests to find (and eat their way through) some semblance of summer vacation during the year that challenged everything — our imaginations, our incomes, our cooking skills, our very lives.
Their food-filled accounts bear little resemblance to the outdated Griswoldian ideal of Great American Travel we’ve been taught to mythologize, but hopefully they provide a small slice of the summertime escape we all deserve.
Editorial lead: Lesley Suter Art director: Brittany Holloway-Brown Contributors: Wei Tchou, Jenny G. Zhang, Alanna Bennett, Carmen Maria Machado, Vanessa Bowen, Clio Chang Editors: Erin DeJesus, Monica Burton, Rebecca Flint Marx Copy editors: Rachel P. Kreiter, Emma Alpern Engagement: Adam Moussa, Milly McGuinness Project manager: Ellie Krupnick Special thanks to Nicholas Mancall-Bitel, Matt Buchanan, and Amanda Kludt
New York City restaurants received devastating news last week: Indoor dining, on the verge of returning following a nearly four-month hiatus, will remain on pause indefinitely. This was not a surprise; other states have rolled back openings amid a COVID-19 surge that continues to infect over 40,000 new people every day. But the indoor ban, while vital from a public health perspective, confirms that restaurants will have to operate without their principal revenue source for the foreseeable future. Without federal assistance, this restriction could contribute to more permanent closures and push the city’s battered hospitality staffers into poverty.
In short, the indoor shutdown, combined with new quarantine rules and other developments, suggests that things could get much, much worse for the New York restaurant community.
The good news is the White House said on Tuesday that it was seeking another Congressional stimulus. Thing is, knowing what battered restaurants need — rent forgiveness, revenue replacement, and enhanced unemployment — requires leaders who understand how bad things are. It’s not clear they do. President Donald Trump called last week’s jobs report spectacular, even though the economy showed one of the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression. And despite the fact that food service joblessness remains at over 24 percent, Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia said that weekly $600 pandemic checks, set to expire within weeks, are no longer needed.
New York’s own unemployment rate was nearly 20 percent by the end of May, with over 66 percent of food and beverage workers out of work. My good colleague Hillary Dixler Canavan argued at the beginning of the pandemic that restaurants would be screwed — she actually used a stronger word — without some sort of federal bailout. Four months later, local and national restaurants still don’t have the help they need, and the people who run them are more vulnerable than ever. Here’s why.
Indoor dining could be a long way off
Social-distancing violations are one very legitimate reason why officials have been rolling back indoor dining across the country. Here’s another reason: Last week, 239 scientists sent a letter to the World Health Organization asking the body to recognize airborne transmission of COVID-19, suggesting, as the New York Timesput it, that the virus “lingers in the air indoors, infecting those nearby.” The letter specifically cited a case of restaurant transmission where patrons infected others sitting at nearby tables. If a consensus continues to grow around airborne spread, the return of indoor dining could depend on expensive renovations like advanced air filtration and on a high tolerance for risk among both staffers and diners.
Quarantine orders and theater closures will further dampen restaurant spending
Restaurants that heavily depend on travelers, particularly in hotels, will continue to suffer as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s quarantine order stifles business or leisure trips. People coming from 19 states, including Texas, Florida, and California, are required to quarantine — without leaving one’s room or residence at all — for two weeks when visiting New York.
Establishments that rely on sports fans — near Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, Yankee Stadium, or quite frankly any stadium nationwide — will fare poorly as well since there aren’t any sports. Pre- and post-theater dining, another linchpin of local restaurants, will remain nonexistent as Broadway delays plans to reopen until at least January. To drive home how monumental that is, consider this: Some eating and drinking establishments on the 46th Street restaurant row, arguably the heart of Theater District dining, are still shuttered even though Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the street closed to car traffic for outdoor dining.
Outdoor dining isn’t a panacea for the industry
Alfresco eating will unquestionably help with revenue shortfalls for certain venues, at least until open street dining ends in September. Still, it’s not clear whether New York has figured out a way to help bring back the type of high-end dining that’s such a big part of the city’s restaurant economy. It might seem trite to suggest that 10-course tastings, or shorter power meals, don’t translate too well to boisterous curbside dining, but it’s worth noting that the venues furnishing these meals provide some of the industry’s most reliably middle-class careers, with many wait captains and sushi chefs earning over $100,000 per year.
Then again, even if fancy spots did open up, many of their regular patrons might not be geographically predisposed to dining out; they’ll instead continue working from home in the suburbs or in their cushy apartments through 2020. Of course, these so-called destination venues also attract everyday gourmands. The question for those patrons is whether they’ll tolerate long rides on subways or airplanes to dine out.
Restaurants will have to dig themselves out of a rent hole
Eighty percent of New York restaurants did not pay their full rent in June, according to a recent Hospitality Alliance survey. That number will surely improve for July, now that outdoor dining has been up and running for a few weeks, but the results also highlight the precarious financial situation of these venues. Most restaurants will still need to figure out how to pay off multiple months of back rent while operating at reduced capacity. On that note: 73 percent of landlords did not waive rent, per the same survey, while 60 percent of that group refused deferments.
PPP aid was only designed to be temporary
The $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program, the federal government’s chief lifeline to restaurants and other small businesses, was supposed to be temporary. The program allowed borrowers to receive forgivable loans, capped at 2.5 times a venue’s monthly payroll. The policy, in other words, wasn’t intended for shutdowns lasting five months or longer. What restaurants need is a true revenue replacement program, like the bipartisan restaurant stabilization bills set to be presented in Congress later this month, or an expanded and overhauled paycheck program.
Hospitality employment will suffer even more amid the virus surge
Trump touted hospitality jobs as among the biggest growth sectors in the June employment report, but the gains were only relative.Eating and drinking establishments still suffer from some of the country’s highest jobless rates, currently at 24.1 percent. And while that figure is down from May’s more ghastly 32.3 percent, there’s good reason to believe things could get worse again.
Data collection for the June jobs report ended too early to reflect the viral surges that have caused officials around the country to reimpose closing. Here’s what’s clear in the meantime: Millions of hospitality workers remain jobless, with more and more being laid off or furloughed as infections spread. And more broadly, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reaffirmed last week that nationwide unemployment will remain in the double digits through 2020, at a rate worse than during any single month of the Great Recession.
Theuncertainty of pandemic aid means uncertainty for restaurant spending
Sit-down restaurant spending — or fancy takeout — is discretionary spending. A $49 filet au poivre is the type of thing most consumers can forgo without seriously impacting their quality of life. That helps explains why scores of restaurants shuttered during the Great Recession.
But here’s an interesting quirk: New data released in late June from the national Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that consumer spending was actually up 8.2 percent in May. That bump would’ve been impossible without stimulus checks or enhanced jobless benefits, especially as unemployment rates remain at historic highs. Taking away those benefits would savage the consumer economy and hit restaurants hard. That’s especially true in New York, where 25 percent of renters reportedly haven’t yet paid June rent, according to one industry group.
Equally frightening for restaurants are the results of a Bloomberg News survey. According to that poll, nearly a third of U.S. adults said they plan to cook at home even more than they do currently once stay-at-home orders are lifted. Unless those people suddenly grow second stomachs, that means they’ll all eat out less.
In the first Eater Bakes competition, five staffers competed to see who could make the best cake at home during quarantine. In the second competition, another set of staffers face off to see who makes the best pie.
The five competitors had three hours to make their pies, and had to film the entire process themselves. With no way to taste the pies, judges — Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt, Eater’s restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan, and expert baker and Eater Young Gun ‘19 Zoe Kanan — rated them based on ambition and appearance.
Eater Director of Editorial Strategy Sonia Chopra chose a familiar and nostalgic route. “I have made my pie before, it’s kind of sentimental and means a lot to me,” says Sonia, presenting her mango pie with a strawberry cheesecake layer on top. “I’m very very excited to have a reason to bake that’s not sheer boredom,” says Senior Social Media Manager Adam Moussa. “I have been baking the hell out of this quarantine.” Adam chooses to make salted lemon meringue pie, a recipe from Detroit’s Sister Pie bakery cookbook. Social Media Manager James Park invented a pie based on another beloved treat, boba tea, by concocting brown sugar boba tea pie. Editor Monica Burton chose a black bottom oat pie, a smitten kitchen recipe adapted from Brooklyn pie shop Four and Twenty Blackbirds, and Project Manager Patty Diez picks a ruffled milk pie, using homemade filo dough.
Each contestant takes us through the steps for their pies from crust to filling to decoration. Most seem quite confident and excited about their results, and there are some mishaps along the way, but there can be only one winner. Watch to see who is crowned the winner of Eater Bakes—pie edition.
I’m a restaurant critic. It’s my job to dine out. Yet even though the restaurant shutdown ended nearly a month ago on Long Island, where I’ve been living since March, I still haven’t ordered anything except takeout. In fact I haven’t sat down for dine-in service in over 122 days, with no plans to change course. Resurgent COVID-19 infections prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce today that he’s pushing back the onset of indoor dining in the city. That’s a good start, but if you care about the safety of your fellow humans amid a pandemic that has killed over half a million globally and sickened many more — myself included — you should consider a stronger measure. You might consider not drinking or dining out at all, not even outdoors.
You should instead stick to takeout. I make that suggestion with a heavy heart. After COVID-19 wrecked my body — I lost 10 pounds in a week — I spent the following three months dreaming about falling back into my old routines: sipping daiquiris at a local Hell’s Kitchen bar, or gorging on vaca frita while a live Latin jazz band plays on stage. It appeared for a while that New Yorkers were about to return to such everyday indulgences. But as states throughout the country loosened restrictions on their hospitality industries and larger economies, the virus came back hard, threatening the progress we’ve made in the five boroughs.
For a patron with a sudden craving, no plate of duck wings or fluke ceviche is worth getting catastrophically sick over, especially if one can order those dishes more safely via takeaway. For a staffer with little alternative but to work, no economic benefit outweighs the reality of getting infected with COVID-19, which can bring with it chronic health repercussions, devastating financial consequences, and death.
Whenever I do feel the urge to go out for a sit-down meal or drink, I think about how COVID-19 cases are increasing in the U.S. more than almost anywhere else in the world, with new infections now double what they were earlier in June. I think about how Texas and Florida are shutting down their bars, how California is shutting down Los Angeles dining rooms, and how revelers in Hell’s Kitchen and the West Village stand as closely together as at a mosh pit while drinking. I think about how scores of restaurant workers have died, and how those that have recovered are going back to work without knowing whether they’ll fall ill again.
I have no doubt that smart people have carried out rigorous cost-benefit studies about keeping businesses open, arguing that at some point the social ills of a stagnant economy will wreak more havoc than the virus. Thing is, my argument isn’t a macro one for policymakers — who should pay workers so they can stay at home — it’s a micro one for consumers. For me, the low risk of sending a single uninsured waiter to an ICU bed, someone who isn’t really there by choice, in exchange for the pitcher of frozen margaritas you happen to be craving in the late afternoon, is a morally indefensible transaction.
Other food reviewers have shared the larger sentiment against dining out. Los Angeles Times critic Bill Addison penned a newsletter wherein he said he wouldn’t feel comfortable returning to restaurants after hanging out at a Beverly Hills steakhouse. San Francisco Chronicle critic Soleil Ho wrote on Monday that she’s “still just cooking at home.” These statements and essays are meaningful because they implicitly deal with setting the right example. When a president doesn’t wear a mask, his followers don’t. When you see a friend drinking in a group and they ask you to join, it’s easy to say yes. When you know a critic is eating out around the city and filing regular dispatches from dining rooms, it acts as a signal that others can and should do the same.
New York Times California critic Tejal Rao was particularly eloquent in her own essay against dining out, citing the absurdity of having restaurants assume the responsibility of safeguarding the health of workers or patrons. “Restaurateurs, despite being pushed into the role, are not our public-health officials,” Rao wrote. Indeed, there’s something distinctly worrisome about entrusting the U.S. hospitality industry — known for more documented wage violations than any other sector — with the health and wellbeing of millions.
Many ex-restaurant staffers are actually doing okay thanks to a federal pandemic unemployment program that’s paying them $600 every week to stay at home, protect themselves, and protect their families. Those people, many of whom are only earning a living wage for the first time in a long time thanks to government assistance, are being pulled into work to earn less and put themselves at risk for catching infections, spreading infections, and dying. Many of those workers are uninsured, and while federal law is supposed to ensure that most patients not face costs for COVID-19 treatments, the reality is slightly more complicated.
What’s more is that local health regulations for dining out aren’t strong enough. Before every shift, restaurants have to screen employees with health based questions, but temperature checks aren’t mandatory for either staffers or employees. And even though patrons are encouraged to wear masks at tables while they’re not actively eating or drinking, few really do. Even if no one dies or is sent to intensive care under these conditions, the notion of being in a place where underpaid staffers are financially compelled to interact with unscreened and unprotected patrons seeking leisure is unacceptable to me on a very basic human level.
Surely, some people will still insist on dining out anyway. Perhaps they’ve assessed that the chances of falling ill are acceptable, or that they’re ready to tough it out if they get sick. So allow me to recount what it’s actually like to catch COVID-19 — and I was one of the lucky ones.
On March 9, there weren’t any reported infections in Idaho where I was vacationing. There were just 600 or so confirmed cases nationwide, a reality that admittedly caused me to miss a few signals. I felt a little out of breath that day, but blamed that on the 3,000 meters of altitude. My cough didn’t seem odd either, which I attributed to the fact that my companion was vaping. When I got chilly after pizza and beers, I thought, hey, it’s winter. I drank some tequila to warm up.
By midnight, I had warmed up. My temperature likely approached 104 degrees Fahrenheit. My upper respiratory system started to get clogged up with fluid. My nausea was uncontrollable. I kept a cold rag over my head for most of the night because my body had transformed itself into an impromptu Russian sauna without an off switch. My resting heart rate, which often dips into the mid 40s during a good night of sleep, averaged well over 105 beats per minute for nearly nine hours. I was delirious and miserable. A day later a local doctor told me their goal was to keep me out of the hospital.
When I started cycling back in New York a few weeks later, the sensation was akin to breathing gasoline that had been set on fire. At some point during my recovery I regressed and barely had enough energy to stand up for more than 30 seconds at a time. I experienced an uncontrollable dry cough for over thirty days. If I had to be physically present at an office, or engaged in client meetings, I estimate I would have been out of work for at least one month.
So if you think in selfish terms, and are trying to calculate your own risk-reward scenario for dining out, remember that there are about 40,000 more confirmed U.S. cases per day now than there were when I became infected. And while most of those cases aren’t in New York, keep in mind that there aren’t any border guards stopping folks from flying into the city from California or Texas, even if they are required to quarantine now.
My relatively mild infection, confirmed by an antibody test, was among the most traumatic medical experiences I’ve ever endured. Imagine having to go through that, or imagine more permanently maiming yourself, killing your family members, or losing your ability to truly appreciate whatever expensive food you claim to enjoy for up to months at a time. My parents both tested positive later in March, and while I never developed anosmia, my mother lost most of her sense of taste for nearly sixty days. Cilantro, one of her favorite herbs, still tasted like soap to her as of a few weeks ago.
If this line of reasoning is what it takes for you to stay at home and not kill restaurant workers — now that you finally suppressed your hankering for rooftop blueberry mojitos and vegan chorizo arancini — so be it. And speaking more superficially, I’ll argue that restaurant food is a heck of a lot more enjoyable when enjoyed safely in your apartment, or on a bench, or on a grassy field in a park where waiters aren’t hovering around with plastic face shields like in some Michael Crichton quarantine horror flick. So really, maybe just stick with takeout.