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Even for Delivery, David Chang Can Do Better Than Ando

Eater's critic samples more than a dozen dishes from David Chang's new delivery-only restaurant Ando

Delivery can be tough on food. Fried items steam and get soggy. Tortillas absorb their fillings and get soggy. And just about everyone has encountered poorly bicycled pizza where the cheese becomes a de facto side dish served adjacent to the crust. With delivery, the chef doesn't control what happens to the food in between the kitchen and the customer, and as a result the product a customer receives is often vastly different from the one the chef puts out.

But the people gotta eat! And delivery can be a good source of revenue for a restaurant. Momofuku's David Chang, one of the most influential chefs of his generation, is aware of all this. And he's searching, like everyone else in the hospitality industry, for efficiencies that will help loosen the vice grip of rising real estate and labor costs on profit margins —€” and for ways that will allow him to pay his own workers more.

His solution, for now, is Ando, a six-month-old delivery-only establishment that seeks to improve the sad desk lunch experience. And a few people are betting he'll succeed —Ando has managed to scrounge up $7 million worth of venture capital and a few celebrity investors. A decade after Momofuku helped revolutionize the New York restaurant by stripping out choice and comfort in exchange for better food at a lower price, Chang is just eliminating the restaurant altogether.

Here's how it works,€” if you're lucky enough to be living in Midtown or Midtown East: You order via an app or online, pay with your fingerprint, and about a half hour later you're eating the geometric components of a green bowl (square daikon, rectangle chicken, triangle cucumbers), all packed as densely as Tetris blocks, out of a cardboard box.

Ando's menu, about 14 items long, is composed of dishes one might expect at a well-curated mall food court: Japanese curry, vegan fried rice, green bowls, Cantonese-American egg rolls, Sichuan spicy noodles, chicken teriyaki, and, as a hat tip to New York's halal street vendors, chicken over rice. Some of the items belong to a section called "Ando Labs," which I suppose is tech jargon for "specials." It's easy to roll your eyes but really this is what specials have always been: beta products, comestibles that aren't quite ready for the more permanent menu.

But more to the matter at hand: Does $7 million in venture capital make for better delivery?

Let's take a look at Ando's chicken fingers. In a review last year, I praised Chang for turning this innocuous and often insipid comfort food into something grand with a dose of numbing Sichuan peppercorns and incendiary chiles. They were, to the best of my knowledge, the only chicken fingers in the world that prompted a verbal warning from the waiter ("those are spicy"). And while I wasn't expecting anything as deliciously painful from Ando, I was expecting something that tasted like it came from a cook who's never happy with the status quo. Or if not that, I was expecting something well executed.

They tasted like chicken fingers that could've come from any bowling alley, anywhere in the U.S.

Instead, I ended up with a pile of very lukewarm, very un-crispy, very unremarkable strips of chicken breast at my desk. I repeated the order and things got worse, with more lightly seasoned poultry and drier meat. They tasted like chicken fingers that could've come from any bowling alley, anywhere in the U.S.

Then there's the delivery itself. During a separate order, Ando's courier (contracted through Uber Rush), yelled at me over the phone after my cell briefly died ("Come on bro you gotta help me out," he said), and left my entire order out on a Midtown street, for anyone to claim it.

Like I said, delivery is tough.

"Our goal is to serve restaurant-quality food that you can eat at your desk, in a park, or on the couch in your underwear," the website reads. To that end, Chang uses calcium-based pH balancing (and Hozon, a proprietary chickpea paste) to make a cheesesteak taste more like a cheesesteak (and less like a soggy mess) when delivered.

Chang is well suited to overhaul delivery. Few restaurateurs have such a track record for refining and rethinking things we didn't think needed refining and rethinking. Chang convinced us to pay more for ramen broth and bossam made with better pork than elsewhere. He had us fall in love with $150 fried chicken made with better birds. He earned two Michelin stars for Momofuku Ko, a tasting menu restaurant, where the amuse bouche was a pork rind and the dessert was a studied take on the McDonald's fried apple pie.

But, after countless meals at Ando over the past two months, I can't say it shows any of the signs of transforming the delivery world in any meaningful way. Ando's fare doesn't so much feel like it comes from one of Chang's envelope-pushing restaurants as it does an anonymous Midtown take-away joint you'd find by randomly scrolling through Seamless.

And while there's something refreshing about the notion of Ando scaling and bringing halal cart fare to the heartland someday, one wonders why any New Yorkers would pay nearly twice the street price for an inferior version of the chicken over rice that's peddled in front of so many New York building during lunchtime.

You expect more than what you get at Ando.

Not everyone who orders delivery wants culinary bliss, and that's fair enough. Sometimes the nice thing about delivery is that it provides you with a reasonable supply of calories to keep you chugging through until dinner during a busy workday. But really, there is no shortage of such average institutions in New York. With Chang, a chef known for agitating, cursing, and pushing past the status quo, you expect more than what you get at Ando.

Here are some notes about what to get and what to avoid at Ando. But the TL;DR is that Ando, with fewer choices, higher prices, and lower quality than other Midtown venues, isn't yet worth switching to from your current delivery staple.

Mains and Salads

Ando cheesesteak Nick Solares

Cheesesteak ($12): Hot meat on a hoagie wit' whiz (in this case, a Momofuku cheese spread) and Hozon (a miso-like chickpea paste). No crispy griddle crust on the meat, but the soft, peppery, oniony aromas make up for it. A side of hot peppers adds a nice vinegary kick. This is Ando's best dish.

Fried chicken ($11): One large thigh and a giant drumstick. The golden exterior, boasting a warming five spice blend, arrived crispy enough, albeit with an under-seasoned interior. And the flesh was somewhat spongy. It's paired with a so-called sweet and sour sauce that looks like furniture oil and that tastes neither sweet nor spicy. It's simply...oily? A biscuit would be nice but Ando doesn't serve any. I respect the very distinct take on fried chicken, and this is perhaps the only Ando dish with true Changian personality, but it's still a work in progress.

Green Bowl ($11): The bowl, which is what people call salad with lots of stuff in it, is a trillion dollar industry. And while I don't normally consume this particular style of roughage, Ando serves a pretty respectable version, laced with pepitas, avocado mash, daikon, cucumbers, juicy chicken (or tofu) cubes, and quinoa.

Chicken Over Rice ($10): Like a yogurt version of the street halal classic, with "chicken on the top," and "rice on the bottom," and everything drenched in too much white sauce. There's no crispy lettuce, as is common, to cut the richness. This dish is pure goop, pure fat. But the worst part is the spice element: Ando uses a thin chipotle-gochujang sauce that lacks the compelling depth or smoky notes of the more classic harissa. The serving vessel for the hot sauce, incidentally, is a plastic ramekin that itself is coated in, you guessed it, white sauce. You have to wipe off the little container with a napkin before you start to pour. Not a great way to start your meal.

Cold Spicy Noodles ($9): Al dente noodles paired with chili oil, vinegar, and pork sausage. Like the Sichuan classic, but served cold, and without any of the signature numbingness. And the pork sausage, on two separate orders, was sandy. So, it's kind of not like the Sichuan classic. Trying to eat it all out of Ando's tiny box is like trying to iron a suit on an economy class seat tray.

Chicken Tenders ($10): Dry meat, un-crisped batter, saccharine honey mustard sauce.

Vegetable Curry ($10): Japanese curry is often a touch sweet. Ando's curry is full on sugary. It arrives lukewarm in a separate container; you pour it over cold, slightly fishy matzo dumplings. Then you microwave the curry and pour it over the dumplings, which still don't get hot enough. Ando says it wants you to be able to eat its food in a park, and you can, if you park has an oven.

Chicken Teriyaki ($11): Grilled breast meat coated -€— and occasionally drenched —€” in the cloying, namesake sauce. It is as mediocre as any version out there.

Miso Caesar Salad ($10): About what you'd expect from a typical chain restaurant Caesar: tangy dressing, no anchovies, crisp lettuce, buttery croutons, sawdusty parmesan bits. And cubes of chicken. It's fine. Hope you have an average day.

Sides & Desserts

Rice & Beans ($4): If your idea of lunch is a mash of smoky beans and firm rice, all gently scented and spiced with the verdant sting of jalapeños, Ando's version is on point. And while neither Chang nor myself are fans of authenticity in any regard, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to be able to pair this Tex-Mex side dish with another Tex-Mex preparation that...isn't a side dish?

Egg Roll ($5): A crispy cylinder filled with a funky mix of shiitake mushrooms and braised cabbage. It's an A-class egg roll, and you should order it if you like your egg rolls paired with, well, rice & beans, which you might, and if you're willing to occasionally put up with them being sold out, which to the best of my knowledge has never happened at any Chinese takeout spot, anywhere in the world. Only available at lunch.

Papaya Daikon Salad ($4): A refreshing sweet-sour side dish that tastes precisely like it sounds.

Fried Rice ($5): Firm rice laced with a vegan XO sauce that tastes nothing like XO sauce, typically a fermented blend of shellfish. This is essentially well-salted rice with a hint of a funk. It's a reasonably inoffensive way to add carbohydrates and calories to your meal.

Milk Bar Cookies: Possibly the only true reason to order Ando on any type of regular basis. For $3.50 you get five cookies, usually one chocolate chip, two Ritz cookies (made with the namesake cracker), and one Shoop — a salt, butter, and pepper treat that makes it the cookie version of cacio e pepe. Short sighted office drones will hoard them; smarter humans will give hand them out to their bosses and coworkers for, well, no reason in particular! Cookies are the best corporate strategy of all time.

One Last Thing...

Delivery is difficult, but if you choose correctly (maybe skip the carbonara), it's usually pretty decent. In fact I'll go even further: My No. 7 subs are always immaculate when they reach the office. Virtually any order from a South Asian spot in Midtown is pretty great. And when I get an egg sandwich delivered by a local diner, the cooks usually know not to fold the sandwich —€” so the yolk doesn't break. These problems have been solved without venture capital, without Ivy League efficiency experts, without supply chain PhDs. They've been solved by hardworking, underpaid cooks and independent business owners.

Ando’s food Nick Solares

These venues, especially diners, are under a serious squeeze. A few might shutter, and that breaks my heart. But there are more of them than I can count in Midtown. They've survived rising real estate costs and rising wages before. They'll do so again. But perhaps this is the final reason to order from a real restaurant — you're contributing to a societal institution that has managed to succeed, against all odds, by serving people good food for a good price, sometimes via messenger, and sometimes at the restaurant itself. I hope Ando succeeds. I hope it gets better. But I'll put more money on the success of the American diner than on the future of a delivery-only restaurant.

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