Two weeks after dining rooms were banned, I returned to the blocks where my love for restaurants began, to see what there was to eat.
Before I proceed, a public service announcement: Experts say that with proper hand-washing by customers, contactless takeout food raises no additional risks. Everyone has to decide where to draw their line of comfortable. Here's mine: Places that make customers come inside, wait their turn for service in too-close proximity, or other unsafe practices, will not be included in my restaurant surveys during the present unpleasantness.
In University Heights, academics, students and staff gathering around Main Street and Bailey Avenue have powered generations of restaurants. My first pork fried rice, egg roll, chicken chop $2 combo at Leeon's Chinese Food, circa 1983, was in the space that was most recently Mumbles Chicken & Waffles for a few days before fire struck.
Tandoori Hut (3171 Main St., 931-9343) had an open sign lit, though. While fond memories of Eddie's Chophouse and Sandwich Envy remain, there's something comforting about the vegetable biryani ($11.95), basmati rice pilaf enriched with bell pepper, onions, peas, cashews, raisins and generous amounts of spiced clarified butter.
A block west, just on the other side of Winspear, was the space I had once loved as Pinzones Pizza, 3225 Main St. Loved because its operator once asked a customer if he was hungry, then delivered his small pizza to McDonald Hall personally, a level of service that separated him dramatically from his pie-slinging peers.
At Eleven Wings and Cuisines (899-2011) is at that address now with subs, fried dinners, pastas and baked dinners in chicken, and side dishes in a soul-food vein. I had been intrigued by a salmon cheesesteak ($13.95) on the menu, and ordered one, along with a single honey Cajun wings ($12.50).
Owner Quincey Morris showed a determination for delivery, too. I arrived early, parked in the wrong place and removed my car across the street to wait for my food. He sprinted across five lanes unbidden to surprise me with my bags — after I said I would return.
That salmon cheesesteak? My new favorite fish-based drunk food, salmon fillet chopped with cheese, sauteed red onion and broccoli, with a tangy vinaigrettelike sauce enlightening up the proceedings. Morris wouldn't tell me what's in it, and since I have no known allergies, all I can tell you is it's delicious. And that I ate the second half, cold, in the light of the open fridge.
Sato Ramen, (3268 Main St., 835-7286), has been serving a broad selection of its ramen soups, based in its signature housemade broths. Since the noodles and other fixings are packaged separately from broth, it takes well to travel and reheating upon destination.
Classic Sato ramen ($12.50) hides springy noodles in pork-and-chicken broth with pork-infused soy, adds sliced chashu pork, bean sprouts, green onions, pickled ginger, bamboo shoots and a soft-boiled egg. Tori paitan ($12.50) is a light but full-flavored chicken broth, with tender chicken slices, corn, baby bok choy, soft-boiled-egg and a umami-rich drizzle of black garlic oil.
Rice bowls are another worthy option, led by the gyu don ($13.50), sliced beef and onions simmered in sweet soy and heaped over white rice, with a pair of spring rolls that were still crispy after a 45-minute wait.
Shango Bistro (3260 Main St., 837-2326), one of the oldest places in the neighborhood, has battened down the hatches and steamed on. Chef-owner Jim Guarino has a slate of takeout and reheatable dishes that can wait days or weeks for deployment from fridge or freezer.
Pick up a chicken pot pie ($12) loaded with chunks of chicken, potatoes, carrots and peas, or penne in a smoked gouda, goat cheese, cheddar sauce ($19) with slices of smoky, spicy andouille sausage under a crown of golden buttered rosemary panko crumbs. That mac and cheese got better with each reheating, like smelting the impurities out of gold.
Gumbo and meatloaf are rewarmable reliables, too, but I held out for the blackened chopped steak po'boy ($15). The black pepper blend packed enough punch to carry through the beef, laid out on a Luigi's sub roll with melted asiago and provolone, roasted red peppers and onions, and pesto mayonnaise. Creole spiced cole slaw and sweet potato fries with honey butter make it a light dinner for two.
Having weathered semester after semester, University Heights places know about ebbs and flows. The students they counted on have evaporated, but they're still feeding neighbors and friends. Here's to the places rowing against the tide.