COVID-19 is not the reason for the “ghost kitchen” concept, but this national trend’s arrival in Central Oregon is a lifeline for some restaurants.
With ghost kitchens, “virtual restaurants,” and “virtual brands,” a chef can offer takeout or delivery-only menus that deviate from their restaurant’s menu. In essence, they are opening a second restaurant with their existing resources. It gives a restaurant the chance to increase its revenue with little or no extra cost.
While many refer to any restaurant without dine-in options as a ghost kitchen, the term refers to the actual kitchen where food is prepared. It could be an existing restaurant or a commercial facility, like Prep — A Chef’s Kitchen in Bend on NE Revere Avenue. A virtual brand is a delivery-only concept where the menu items are sold exclusively online. Virtual brands have no brick and mortar location and are popular with chefs opening a new “restaurant” without the added cost of a lease. A virtual restaurant uses the kitchen of an existing restaurant to prepare its online offering.
Made possible because of the popularity of food delivery services — GrubHub, Door Dash and others — the idea of new restaurants without new physical locations was discussed before the pandemic. Oddly, those talking about it aren’t the same owners who now have ghost kitchens.
As Central Oregon isn’t a big city, it can be easy to guess who is behind these ghost kitchens. But the concept is not about who is making the food. A fine-dining New York restaurant began delivering inexpensive hamburgers but didn’t want it to be known as it might water down their original brand. In that vein, I’ll refrain from revealing our ghosts and concentrate on the food offered.
Virtual restaurants in Central Oregon
Bop Culture began as a fun riff playing with the name of the Korean rice bowl dish, Bibimbop (pronounced “bee-bim-bop”). Each bop on the menu is a play on words based on a pop culture movie or song title. Even the name Bop Culture is a play on “pop culture.” Bop Culture’s soup can logo is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s pop art.
Fun names aside, this is excellent, very affordable Korean food. Each Bibimbop is a combination of sweet, savory, tangy, bitter, umami and salty. It’s complete satisfaction for the taste buds.
I ordered the “Don’t Bop Til You Get Enough.” It’s the classic Bibimbop. The rice bowl includes marinated vegetables — bean sprouts add slight bitterness, mushrooms add umami. The protein is a sweet, savory, nutty bulgogi (thinly-sliced marinated beef) and a poached egg. The balance of flavors was a party in my mouth. And, it’s a reasonable $10.
On another visit, I tried the “Bop Gun.” Steamed potstickers are slathered in a sweet and spicy “Maverik” sauce (the character in the movie “Top Gun”). Scallions and fried onions top sweet and tangy kimchi (fermented cabbage). The flavors and textures play perfectly off one another.
Kimchi slaw is the only hint that the Fuku chicken Sandwich is Korean. Crispy fried, tender chicken is served on a potato roll with kimchi, then slathered in sesame mayo with bread-n-butter pickles and a kick from habanero honey. Like the Bop dishes, it was a joyful combination of tastes — sweet, spicy, savory, nutty, creamy and sour. At $8, it’s an excellent sandwich for little more than the price of fast food.
Other items I’ve tried are the Bop Dog and the take-and-make Ramen. Both are solid choices if that is what you want, but the other dishes are the stars.
Bombay Bend offers Indian Street Food. If you are looking for the familiar Tikka Marsala, or Dahl, Indian Paneer (Cheese) or Tandoori Grilled Lamb, consider making your own rice bowl, salad bowl or crispy burrito. These custom items include many choices for proteins and toppings. The rice bowl I created satisfied my craving for traditional Indian food.
The flakey phyllo dough of the Vegetable Samosas were filled with seasoned peas, potatoes and chilies. The samosas are served with mint chutney and date chutney to add some sweetness and slight zing.
The Indian spiced chicken and pork meatballs are covered in a thick Tikki Masala Gravy. It is dense, flavorful, and filling.
Tandoori Chicken Tacos use mini naan bread. Tender tandoori flavored chicken fingers are laid on fresh romaine, cilantro and onion, with spiced yogurt jalapeños.
The Murmura Chaat is true Indian street food. This snack is a dry mixture that comes with mint, cilantro, tomato and onion chutney. It is meant to be combined when eaten. Sometimes called Bhel Puri, puffed rice (murmura), fried sev (little stringy, fried noodles made from besan powder), dried curry leaves and curried peanuts make for a rather salty snack.
When you get a delivery from Fratelli’s Pizza, the driver, dressed in a flat driver cap, mustachioed mask and sports coat, arrives in an electric car with decals to mock a 1930’s automobile. The theme begins on their web page with “contraband pizza pies.”
While pizza preferences are varied, these pizzas are among my local favorites. Each pie is a simple preparation with cooked-in herbs that don’t overpower the pizza.
Maggies Lane is a simple, traditional margarita pizza with San Marzano tomato sauce. San Marzano tomatoes come from Naples, Italy. They have a thicker consistency, sweet flavor, and lower acidity. It sets the scene for fresh seasoned mozzarella, fresh basil ribbons, and a finishing touch of olive oil. The crust was chewy at the edges, thin in the middle.
Fratelli’s makes their own pepperoni for the Smuggler-Pepperoni pizza. Flavorful, house-made pepperoni slices and ground pepperoni top a mozzarella cheese mix. This is how pepperoni pizza should taste.
The Smoking Gun is topped with house-smoked pulled pork, sausage, chicken, pickled Peppadew peppers, San Marzano tomato sauce, and a mozzarella house cheese mix. The pork adds a smoky barbecue flavor that is more subtle than a slathering of barbecue sauce on the pizza.
Fratelli’s Caesar Salad dressing is one of the best I’ve ever had. That being said, I love anchovies and garlic. I was told that the dressing might be a work-in-progress. If you like a milder dressing, inquire when you order.
To keep costs down during the pandemic, when she first opened Cypress Southern Kitchen, Susan Harrell decided to stay virtual. Through the holidays, Harrell’s been offering regional southern meals. The holiday meals are continuing through February. After that, Cypress Southern will schedule a supper club — family meals for pre-order.
On Feb. 7, Super Bowl Sunday, the a la carte menu includes a pound of dry-brined and oak-smoked chicken wings. My son lived in Florida and said these wings like those he had in the south — smoky and mild. Pimento Cheese with cheddar and roasted red bell peppers and crackers are also available. The main dish is Mary’s Fried Buttermilk chicken.
Braised short ribs are the entree for the Valentine’s Day menu with optional Va Piano wine pairing. The meal starts with Crab Bisque or a Cypress Wedge salad with Rogue Valley smokey blue dressing. The main course is the ribs with pomme puree and crisp haircut verts with garlic and shallot. Dessert is coconut pecan pie or flourless chocolate cake.
Both meals are available for delivery in Bend or can be picked up at Prep — a Chef’s Kitchen.
Deep Dish Pizza is another delivery-only virtual brand that I covered in my pizza article on Jan. 7. Owner Bob Matthews mentioned that he is looking for a ghost kitchen to prepare the thick-crusted Chicago style pies.