If ever a restaurant trend conveniently coincided with a very specific rise in demand, it’s ghost kitchens in the time of COVID.
Ghost kitchens are restaurants that operate without an onsite brick-and-mortar kitchen and dining space. Instead, these virtual restaurants often prepare food at a centralized commercial kitchen, then serve hungry patrons through delivery and takeout services only.
And that last part is key to the growth of ghost kitchen concepts. As dining in at restaurants became less prudent (and at times forbidden) during the pandemic, Austin’s ghost kitchen restaurants — uniquely prepared to thrive in a delivery- and takeaway-only restaurant ecosystem — sprang to the rescue of hungry, housebound Austinites.
We’re happy to honor these ghost kitchen heroes at our annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, which celebrates the best of the Austin restaurant and bar scene.
Restaurant industry 101: If you want your concept to succeed, give it an auspicious name. That must have been what chef Char Chongchitmate was thinking when he named his Thai ghost kitchen Charoen Express, “charoen” being the Thai word for “prosperous.” Charoen Express, which serves authentic Thai food, represents a great example of a restaurateur smartly pivoting amid the pandemic, as Chongchitmate originally planned to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant but opted for a ghost kitchen concept when launching the biz in 2020. From the appetizers (try the goy-za dumplings and Thai-style Brussels sprouts), classic Thai soups, stir-fried entrées, a whole lot of curry and stir-fried noodle options — and, oh yeah, that mango sticky rice! — Charoen Express definitely delivers.
Chicken Salad Shoppe
With a variety of “flavoristic” chicken salad sandwiches and wraps (even vegetarian versions), as well as salads and sides — not to mention ginormous “monster” cookies and a nice selection of espresso drinks — Chicken Salad Shoppe rules the roost. Given that co-owners and husband-and-wife team Ivan and Molly Mills were preparing to launch a brick-and-mortar when the pandemic hit, they could have ended up with egg on their faces. But they wisely rethought their plan, launching Chicken Salad Shoppe instead as an online restaurant with pickup and delivery service. We think they hatched a great idea!
This California-spawned gourmet hot dog and sausage spot is the “absolute würst.” Featuring a menu of “unbeatable meats” — including an abundance of fancy Haus Dogs (those King’s Hawaiian buns, though!), Haus Burgers, a Big Mutha Clucka Haus Chicken sandwich, sliders, and even build-your-own and plant-based offerings — this pickup and delivery joint housed in the Kitchen United facility is proof that with a little imagination, can teach an old dog some tasty new tricks.
Guy Fieri’s Flavortown Kitchen
Ghost kitchen concepts have become so popular, even universally known celebrity chef Guy Fieri has gotten in the game. His delivery-only Flavortown Kitchen features a menu of satisfyingly fried and cheesy offerings, and yes, a Caesar salad for those less inclined to go for heavier fare. But come on, this is Flavortown, so opt for menu flavor bombs like sharable Jalapeño Pig Poppers (bacon-wrapped, fire-roasted jalapeños stuffed with andouille sausage and pimento cream cheese then glazed in bourbon brown sugar barbecue sauce) and super melty Cheesesteak Egg Rolls, then move on to a massive burger (with bacon and mac and cheese, why not?) or the Crazy Cuban Sandwich with a side of fried pickles and ranch. (You can work out tomorrow.) Oh yeah, and don’t forget the Choco Whiskey Cheesecake.
Man Vs. Fries
As they say at this pop-up turned pickup and delivery sensation, “there’s no ‘we’ in ‘fries,’” so get your own, fry poacher! Man Vs. Fries, a California-based concept, is no small fry, having expanded rapidly across the country and even in Canada. The idea is simple: Pick your fry style (seasoned straight versus curly), pick your meat (carne asada versus pollo asado), and pick your style (Norcal style versus social style), then let the fry guys work their magic. Man Vs. Fries’ meatier offerings include the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-stuffed Social Burrito; the massive stuffed tostada Cali Crunch, the Norcal Burrito with secret sauce; the CBR (chicken, bacon, ranch) Burrito; and the appropriately named Hella-Dilla (a hella big flour tortilla stuffed with hella meat, hella cheese, hella fries, and hella sides). If you’re feeling particularly hungry, conquer one of the absurdly appealing fried desserts.
Fowl play is at work at this Thai ghost kitchen — a funky chicken concept from chef Char Chongchitmate of Charoen Express and Bua Vanitsthian, co-owner of Nashville-style hot chicken concept Chicken as Cluck. Located at the Cloud Kitchens facility, Mother Klucker specializes in kao mun gai, the popular Southeast Asian poached chicken and rice dish, which is available in a variety of entrée set-ups over Mother Klucker’s flavor-packed “fat rice” and served with Mother’s Lucky Sauce. While the klucker gets the most attention here, the concept couldn’t have taken off without the mother, and Chongchitmate admits his mother taught him all her secrets for creating the best kao mun gai around. Chongchitmate calls her a “tiger mom,” but in this case, we might have to go with loving “mother hen.”