Take it away

A look at gourmet-grocery takeout food — with some rules to remember

click to enlarge BIG FISH: Denise Chavez of Chavez At Home displays grilled wild salmon with mustard sauce. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
BIG FISH: Denise Chavez of Chavez At Home displays grilled wild salmon with mustard sauce.

"Meal replacement" was the rallying cry of grocery and takeout futurists during the '90s, with newcomers like Eatzi's in Houston blazing a path toward the future of dining. Everyone in the industry was talking about this place, where people could pick up anything from sandwiches to full-blown five-course gourmet meals on their way home from work. Quick, but vastly better than fast food, Eatzi's catered to people who had better things to do than cook or eat out.

Now, more than a decade later, Eatzi's has ballooned into a nationwide empire of — just five locations? We don't have one here in the Bay area. We don't need one. Turns out, it isn't that hard for places to jump on the "meal replacement" bandwagon, from the corner deli to the butcher shop to the crunchy organic market down the street. Even corporate bastions like Sweetbay and Publix have thrown their hats into the pre-cooked ring. Everywhere you turn there are bowls and platters lined with tasty food ready for a quick trip home.

Wait a minute. Did I say tasty? After a week of eating out of retail refrigerators, I've come to a few conclusions that now seem rather intuitive. First, food that sits in a cold case waiting for the right person to come by and pick it up is rarely going to be as good as fresh-from-the-kitchen restaurant fare. Second, depending on your skills in the kitchen, prepared foods may not be as good as what you can whip up yourself if you have an hour to spare.

Not having that extra hour to spare, either in the kitchen or at the neighborhood restaurant, is really the point here. After a hard day in the corporate trenches, you deserve whatever free time you can wrangle. You also deserve sustenance better than a McRib or microwaved hot pocket.

For less than $20, you can kit out a meal for two with just a brief stop on your way home. Sure, it may not be real gourmet cooking, but it's amazing how much better food tastes when you're watching last night's Colbert Report in your loose jammies. Beats most restaurant ambiance, hands down.

So when approaching store-bought prepared foods, remember what you are buying — convenience and comfort, not culinary excellence. Also, there are some easy rules to remember that can make for a more rewarding meal. Here's a rundown of some of our local providers, along with the rules.

Chavez At Home
1350 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, 813-251-1500.

Denise Chavez opened this quaint little spot last year with restaurateur mom Helen, partly to take advantage of her mother's die-hard fan base and partly to take advantage of the immense quantity of busy professionals in SoHo. Chavez stretches the boundaries of what is typical at prepared foods joints. Sure, there's quiche (Rule No. 1: Everyone's got quiche, but no one makes it well), but they also have shrimp pie — an unlikely combination of cream, huge crustaceans and a mess of parmesan cheese that tastes much better than it sounds. One platter is filled with gigantic one-pound burgers topped and stuffed with creamy blue cheese and sweet sautéed onions, big enough for an entire day of eating, and huge twice-baked potatoes loaded with cheese and cream.

There is also a concern here for the meal, not just the dish. The staff will suggest pairings of veggies and entrees, and almost every dish comes with a separate sauce to be applied just before eating. Here, meal replacement covers the whole experience, from apple slaw to coconut cake. 3.5 stars

Integrity To Go
1117 Fourth Street N., St. Petersburg, 727-209-2380.

Susan Huff tried to get out of the retail business, but it kept pulling her back in. She sold the first incarnation of Integrity a few years ago and scaled back to just the occasional catering. Her customers and friends wouldn't let her stay away. "Everyone was always calling me and asking to me make them dinner," she explains.

After operating out of the kitchen of the Unity Church on 46th Avenue N. for a couple of years, where she still runs a catering business and sells meals-to-go, Huff recently opened an outlet on Fourth Street closer to downtown St. Pete, where the core of her clientele work and live. The space is just big enough to hold a few tall refrigerator cases and an immense amount of baked goods.

Really, it's hard not to start with dessert. Cookies manage to be huge, crisp and chewy at the same time, while gingerbread cake is intensely fragrant and Huff's "Mid-Town Munchie" granola is good enough to rival the granola lady at the Saturday Morning Market.

Entrees aren't generally the star here — pumpkin risotto has texture but hardly any flavor, pork tenderloin can be tough, and quiche is nigh flavorless (see Rule No. 1) — but the soups are routinely stellar, especially Integrity's roasted red pepper, or bean and kale. Sandwiches and spreads are also consistent bets, especially the simple but rich chicken salad wrapped with fresh veggies. In fact, that brings us to Rule No. 2: Sandwiches are always a good bet for a take-home meal. In all the places I covered, bread stacked with filling is routinely the best thing served.

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