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Review: As restaurants pivot to delivery, this food reviewer tests out local delivery-only ‘ghost kitchens’

Northeast Sisters
The spicy hot pot from Northeast Sisters, a Chinese food delivery-only service that operates out of the Hood Kitchen Space in Costa Mesa.
(Edwin Goei)

It was the second week of March. “Social distancing” was already a buzzword but things had not yet risen to the level of alarm that would come in the weeks ahead.

Still I knew that as a restaurant reviewer, I had to rethink my assignment. The Korean BBQ restaurant that was to be the subject of my next column was open, but I questioned whether it made sense to even try it.

Not only would reviewing this restaurant (or any restaurant) be ignorant to the situation that was quickly unfolding, but there was a real possibility the place might not be allowed to operate by the time the article was published.

Then came L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s order that the city’s eateries be closed except for delivery and take-out. Orange County followed suit a few days later, and then Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his stay-at-home mandate after that.

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By then, I’d already decided on a different task, one that I hoped might be more relevant to our readers — new restaurants that exist solely for delivery.

These are the “ghost kitchens” whose food can only be found on sites such as DoorDash and GrubHub. And there was one particular ghost kitchen that caught my attention: Sam’s Crispy Chicken, the delivery-only concept by Sam Nazarian — the mogul who owns Umami Burger and The Bazaar by José Andrés.

Built upon a single chicken sandwich on the Umami Burger menu and now expanded to include chicken tenders and a waffle sandwich, Sam’s Crispy Chicken checks off two of the hottest food trends in one swipe: Nashville Hot Chicken and online food delivery. And just by coincidence, it debuted around the same time that Garcetti made his announcement.

The timing, I thought, was nothing short of serendipitous.

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So I set up a DoorDash account and before I knew it, the doorbell rang, and I was handed a black paper bag with a tattooed rooster cartoon on the front. In my kitchen, I dug through the layers of packaging to unearth the two chicken sandwiches at the center of it all.

One was Sam’s Signature Sandwich and the other, the Nashville Hot Fried Chicken Sandwich. I mention the names to differentiate the two, but in reality, they were virtually indistinguishable.

Both left my hands equally greasy even though the Nashville chicken was the only one dipped in “chili oil.” And both left the same impression of past fried chicken sandwiches I’ve taken home from Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s.

As with those others, by the time I ate the food, the breading was damp and the waffle fries were limp. All of this, of course, was not the fault of Sam’s cooks. Travel time and the laws of physics are the enemy of any fried food.

Sam’s Crispy Chicken
The delivery-only concept of Sam’s Crispy Chicken, which has a branch in Costa Mesa, seemed novel when it opened a couple of weeks ago. Then, all restaurants became take-out and delivery only.
(Edwin Goei)

Unfortunately, as every restaurant started to pivot to delivery, I realized what made Sam’s unique a week ago now made them just another player in a crowded field.

And with more restaurants being added to delivery sites every day, this was becoming the case with all the other ghost kitchens on my list.

If they were obscure before, they were practically invisible now — especially the mom-n-pops that are so local, they only show up on DoorDash if you live within a certain radius of the delivery area.

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I got a voicemail from the Dasher who tried to pick up my order from Vexican, a vegan Mexican ghost kitchen that operated out of The Hood Kitchen, a commercial kitchen rental space in Costa Mesa used by independent food producers.

He told me that when he showed up, Vexican just wasn’t there. The term ghost kitchen was starting to get literal.

The next day, I picked another vendor that operated out of the same space, a Chinese kitchen called Northeast Sisters. I was relieved when the doorbell rang a half hour later.

And although half the soup of their Spicy Hot Pot had spilled out into the delivery guy’s insulated bag, what Northeast Sisters sent me was exactly what I needed.

In this lidded plastic bowl was essentially a distillation of the meal I’d enjoy in stages at Little Sheep and Haidilao. Without the use of an actual pot, it re-created the flavor, if not the full Chinese hot pot experience.

Every piece of fish cake, imitation crab, lotus root, and bok choy I lifted out of the red liquid carried with it the spicy and numbing sensation of the Sichuan peppercorn-spiked broth.

And as I blotted the sweat from my brow, I recognized that this food meant more to me than just that night’s dinner; it offered a peek at the normalcy I’d previously taken for granted. It reminded me of how privileged I was, how we all were, to be able to go out and enjoy a meal like this at a restaurant in the company of family and friends.

But it also made me hopeful that when we’re on the other side of this, I will eventually get to try that new Korean BBQ restaurant I wanted to review. And when I go, I know that no matter how the food turns out, I’m going to savor every minute of it.

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