Nowadays we no longer get to enjoy many aspects of restaurant dining. Sitting in a dining room with its pleasing and sometimes quirky decor, relaxing in a comfy seat in the air conditioning as the weather swelters outside, and carefree interaction with other humans — staff as well as fellow diners — are privileges we once took for granted. Now, even with a small collection of outdoor tables, the new rules of comportment and fear of the virus have made a restaurant meal a fraught experience.
And even though outdoor dining will help keep our favorite restaurants alive, at least before cold weather arrives, these places must still depend on carryout and delivery for the bulk of their income if they hope to survive. But not all carryout and delivery is created equal, and some dishes survive better than others. Avoid breaded and fried foods, especially those with sauces, and anything involving raw or partially cooked fish. Seek out stews and cold soups, as well as composed salads, especially those that don’t involve mayonnaise or come with the dressing on the side.
Here are some general suggestions for food that travels well, along with a few examples selected for their durability, from specific restaurants that I adore.
Chinese Noodles, Stir-Fries, and Bing
For nearly a century, neighborhood Chinese carryouts have studied how to make food fast and send it out quickly, in packaging brilliantly suited to keep it hot and fresh. And this knowledge has filtered upward, so that even upscale Chinese restaurants have learned at the knee of the neighborhood establishments. Yes, noodles are great, but depending on the type, they either transport well or don’t (chow fun and Singapore mei fun are always a good bet). Stir-fries are ideal, because all ingredients have been chosen to retain their firmness for a half hour or more.
Shrimp egg foo young at Golden Woks: I’ve tried this dish in many places, and it always comes out well and keeps. Three deep-fried patties, rife with sprouts, shredded cabbage, onions, and shrimp, settle into a brown gravy that can be ladled up and poured over the patties as they rest upon the accompanying rice. Order online. 159 Christopher Street, between Greenwich and Washington streets, West Village
Grandma’s braised pork at Baodega: Served on a bed of steamed bok choy with white rice on the side, this dish is rich and gooey in the best way, with a subtle taste of star anise. It is a central part of the catalog of Shanghai dishes at Flatiron’s Baodega, where chef Kenny Yie cooks, and it travels extremely well. Not so the soup dumplings, so watch out! Order online. 7 West 20th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, Flatiron District
Fried lobster with sticky rice at Farmers Restaurant: This modern Cantonese near the border of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst in one of the city’s newest Chinatowns specializes in seafood with several luxe twists, among them this splendid dish featuring two lobsters thickly coated with sticky rice. Owner Jinxue Cai’s menu includes many seafood stir-fries and braises equally good for carryout. Order online. 1692 86th Street, at 17th Avenue, Bath Beach, Brooklyn
Pork cabbage cake at Golden Palace Gourmet: One of the best restaurants serving the food of Dongbei, Golden Palace Gourmet lists many durable and pleasing dishes that even provide easily reheatable leftovers. There are savory casseroles and stout soups, with pungent sour flavors and homemade ingredients (including a wonderful blood sausage), but one of my favorite categories is “cakes,” which feature a stuffing rolled in dough and pan roasted. Pork Chinese cabbage cake (zhurou bing) is one, tasting something like pork tossed with sauerkraut. Order online. 140-09 Cherry Avenue, between Kissena Boulevard and Union Street, Flushing
Vietnamese Banh Mi and Other Heroes
Hero sandwiches are a mixed bag when it comes to durability. Those Italian ones composed of cold cuts and cheese do fairly well for an hour or so till the bread goes stale, but such hot heroes as eggplant parm keep abysmally, sogging the bread with sauce so that the whole thing becomes a semi-liquid mess. Turn instead to the Vietnamese banh mi, which holds up brilliantly to the abuse of traveling. The ingredients are relatively dry, with only a modest slick of mayo to moisten the sandwich. Yet the filling combos are lively and don’t taste dehydrated at all, including crisp pickles, fronds of cilantro, and rich pate.
Banh mi thit nguoi at Banh Mi Saigon: After a three-month hiatus, the city’s best banh mi shop has returned. As before, it makes its own baguettes, which is one reason for its excellence. The sandwich menu has been altered, and many of the accessory dishes, like shrimp summer rolls, are currently unavailable, but the list of 13 banh mi is more impressive than ever. My current favorite features three cold cuts (garlicky pate, a hammy head cheese, and cha lua, that white porky luncheon meat) plus pickled shredded veggies, cilantro, and cuke spears. Overstuffed and amazing! Call (212) 941-1541 to order. 198 Grand Street, between Mott and Mulberry streets, Chinatown
Vegetarian pork sandwich at Banh Mi Place: A visit to Houston not long ago demonstrated to me that there’s a strong vegetarian Vietnamese tradition, often linked to Buddhism. This small sandwich shop on Prospect Heights’ main drag (and steps from Grand Army Plaza) specializes in vegetarian banh mi, slathered with both mayo and butter. With the assault of sharp and sweet flavors, you won’t likely notice that the sliced pork is not actually pork. Vegetarian chicken, fish, ham, and tofu are also available, plus all the usual carnivorous options. Order online. 824 Washington Avenue, between St. Johns and Lincoln places, Prospect Heights
Sant’Agata at Pisillo Italian Panini: There are no hot heroes or thick tomato sauces at Pisillo, which has branches near City Hall and in Chelsea, so no sogginess results. The Sant’Agata, named after a Sicilian saint martyred in 251 AD, features mortadella and mozzarella, a combination made in heaven. The sandwich is offered on a broad range of fresh breads, all of them big, and 34 other sandwiches are available. Order online. 97 Nassau Street, between Ann and Fulton streets, Financial District
The Bomb at Sal, Kris, & Charlie’s: “Go big!” is great advice when it comes to heroes, and this homely grocery and sandwich counter near the northern terminus of the N train carries out that imperative. Its sandwich called The Bomb — featuring multiple cheeses and cold cuts — is the apex of this attitude, so big that you can’t finish more than half. 33-12 23rd Avenue, between 33rd and 35th streets, Astoria
West African Fare
The food of West Africa, running from richly flavored and textured stews served with fufu, polished rice, or other starches to dainty kebabs and fritters, makes some of the world’s best carryout. Indeed, in places like Dakar, Senegal, many kitchens specialize in carryout for office workers too far away from home to go there for lunch, which is often the biggest meal of the day. And many New York City West African restaurants stay open 24 hours, perfect for that late-night or early-morning meal when other restaurants are closed.
Fufu and goat with okra at Papaye: This Ghanaian restaurant right on Grand Concourse is a neighborhood fixture, currently open noon till midnight seven days. Two dozen classic dishes are offered, sauced with peanut butter, okra, and palm nut. Then there’s palaver, often denoting a hash featuring green leafy vegetables and white yam. The fufu served with goat is dunked in a red sauce thickened with okra, and eating it is a complete pleasure. Simple chicken and fish dishes with rice are also available, and all are great to go. Call (718) 676-0771 for takeout and delivery. 2300 Grand Concourse, at 183rd Street, Fordham Heights
Dodo with beans at Africana: A staple Nigerian dish, the fried plantains known as dodo are often paired with long-cooked black-eyed peas or other beans, and the dish here is provided with a couple of hunks of fried fish. Without the seafood, though, it’s a full vegetarian meal. Africana is a delightful intimate cafe near downtown Jamaica where one can also get fiery shrimp pepper soup and botanical sauces based on egusi (melon seeds) and all sorts of green leaves, some slightly bitter, other lubricious. Call (718) 658-8501 for takeout or delivery. 146-12 Liberty Avenue, between Liverpool and Waltham streets, Jamaica
Thiebou djeun at Africa Kine: At this restaurant, named after co-owner Kine Mar, the standards of Senegal are faithfully reproduced, starting with this national dish, familiarly known as “cheb.” Everything for a full and balanced meal is there: bluefish stuffed with herbs; a plethora of vegetables including okra, cabbage, and yuca; and broken rice flavored with tamarind, stockfish, tomato paste, and palm oil. It will not only taste fresh when you get it home, but will also still be warm. Order online. 2267 Seventh Avenue, between 133rd and 134th streets, Harlem
Yassa ganar at Joloff: Moved from Clinton Hill to Bedford-Stuyvesant nearly a decade ago, Joloff — named after a West African tribe who’ve lent their name to a recipe for rice nearly universal in the subcontinent — was founded by the Diagne family in 1995. Chicken yassa is a dish of roasted poultry heaped with a mustardy sauteed onions, which makes the perfectly baked chicken as interesting as chicken gets. Order online. 1168 Bedford Avenue, at Madison Street, Bedford-Stuyvesant
Pizza and Its Ilk
Like neighborhood Chinese food, pizza is a dish that developed with carryout and delivery in mind. And like Chinese food, it often comes in ideal packaging, in this case a square box designed to retain heat, as well as the other aspects of the pizza experience, including a crust that is crisp in some places and yielding in others. What’s more, pizza is one of the few dishes that can be eaten at any temperature, from hot from the oven to stone cold from the refrigerator after a night of drinking. Toppings other than tomato sauce and cheese are not needed, but they can make the experience of eating pizza even more enjoyable.
Pizza with Italian sausage and Kalamata olives at Grimaldi’s: Not long ago, this Chelsea branch of a much older original placed life-size figures of Barack and Michelle Obama out front sitting at a table, causing quite a stir. The pizzas are nearly as controversial, a bit thicker than the city’s original coal-oven pies, even though the founder was a relative of Patsy Lancieri, who founded Patsy’s in East Harlem. These pies also have a lusher strew of ingredients, and this particular pie carried out better than any pizza I’ve had in the last year or so. The same pie from the Dumbo original branch does just as well. Order online. 656 Sixth Avenue, between 20th and 21st streets, Chelsea
Calzone at John’s of Bleecker Street: I won’t lie: John’s is my favorite pizzeria in the world. The pies, however, don’t carry out as well as some others, due to the super-thin crust, which gets cranky and cold when it sits in the box. Oozing mozzarella and ricotta, John’s epic calzone, made with the same dough in the same oven, remedies the situation, being a veritable heat battery. And it can feature any of the same ingredients as a pie (pepperoni, black olives, and mushrooms are my favorites). One calzone feeds three. Order online. 278 Bleecker Street, between Morton Street and Seventh Avenue South, Greenwich Village
Romana at La Villa Pizzeria: There are ways to enhance the carryout facility of pizza, and one of them is a pie invented in Abruzzo called the Romano that has two nearly identical crusts, one on top, one on the bottom. Stuffed with potatoes and Italian sausage, this pie retains heat for a hell of a long time, and the two crusts remain miraculously crisp. Other locations of this stunningly good pizzeria are found in Howard Beach, Mill Basin, and Dyker Heights. Order online. 261 Fifth Avenue, between Garfield Place and First Street, Park Slope
Sicilian square pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens: People complain about the “sheets” at L&B sometimes. The main complaint about this cheesy rectangular slice is that the dough is undercooked in the middle of the crust, which is intentional, I assure you. You like cookie dough, right? Well, the effect is the same. It tastes good immediately, but this pizza can also stand reheating, and guess what? The raw dough in the middle gets cooked, making a good pie even better, or at least good in a different way. Who says reheated pizza always sucks? Order online. 2725 86th Street, between West 10th and West 11th streets, Gravesend
South Asian Curries and Biryanis
The word “curry” is always good to stimulate discussion. Yes, it’s a description that derives from the subcontinent’s colonial era, yet it is used almost universally to describe a range of dishes driven by their differing masalas. These curries constitute some of the world’s best carryout, because they actually improve with age as the complex flavors meld and mellow. And they’re ultra-reheatable. Biryani, a dish that traces its roots to Middle Eastern pilaf, is another very durable takeout, and reheats excellently, even in a microwave. And whatever your favorite main ingredient, be it shrimp, goat, chicken, paneer, or just plain vegetables, there’s a great biryani waiting for you just a phone call or internet order away.
Goat dum biryani at Adda Indian Canteen: One of the earliest forms of biryani came from the northern Indian city of Lucknow, in which the savory rice with meat or vegetable tidbits was sealed in with a sheet of dough topside as it baked, keeping the flavors inside. This early version is faithfully reproduced at Sunnyside’s Adda, attractively packaged for takeout only. (You can also pick it up at Rahi in the West Village.) Order online. 31-31 Thomson Avenue, between 31st and Van Dam streets, Long Island City
Beef nihari at Lahori Chilli: This classic Pakistani dish features big hunks of beef in a rich gravy, thickened with whole-wheat flour, that is well on its way to becoming a paste. Not only is the texture fascinating, but it sits on top of the rice without soaking it. Lahori Chilli also offers a vast range of Pakistani and Indian dishes and chaats, with house-made sweets for dessert. Order online. 1026 Coney Island Avenue, between Foster and Parkville avenues, Midwood
Shrimp caldin at Cardamom: The cuisine of this bright Sunnyside spot originates in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, which means lots of seafood, coconut milk, and chiles, via chef Alwyn Gudhino. This dish is particularly good, with big shrimp cavorting in a mellow orange sauce that tastes of sun and waves, and reminds you that Goa is a famous tourist destination. To order, call (718) 706-9718. 43-45 43rd Street, between 43rd and 44th streets, Sunnyside
Palak paneer at Sahib: Let us not forget the profusion of vegetarian curries available on nearly any Indian menu. This restaurant, under the supervision of veteran restaurateur Hemant Mathur, specializes in dishes from Kashmir and other northern destinations, and its palak paneer features a flavorful slurry of spinach and one of the softest and most agreeable paneers, made on the premises. Order online. 104 Lexington Avenue, between 27th and 28th streets, Murray Hill
Other Good Carryout and Delivery Dishes
A few more dishes that carry out well, which you must seek for yourself: pupusas, burritos and enchiladas, goulash, feijoada, jerk chicken, katsudon, patacones sandwiches, corned beef and cabbage, plov, chicken tabaka, matambre, rotisserie chickens, octopus or cod salads, lasagna, and roast pork.
Here’s a list of things that carry out poorly. In many cases the reasons are obvious, but a few require explanation. Tacos are great when fresh, but tend to fall apart as they age, unless they’re tacos canasta, in which the tortillas have been first dipped in oil. Go instead for huaraches or sopes, hand-patted from fresh masa.
A medium-rare hamburger becomes repulsive as it reaches room temperature and the pink in the middle turns brownish, while fried chicken and breaded cutlets slough off their coating, no longer crisp. Losing their crackle, dosas also lose their attractiveness, while sushi has a half-life of about five minutes, and gets rapidly worse as time elapses. Finally, carryout from a steakhouse is absurd. Find a great raw steak and cook it yourself!
French fries and onion rings
Hamburgers and cheeseburgers
Breaded pork, veal, or chicken cutlets
Milkshakes and malts