Last weekend, I decided to order diner food while floating on a few puffs of high-THC wax. The clock read 11:29 p.m., and I looked restlessly at my car keys before deciding otherwise. Instead, I turned toward my laptop.
A few clicks later, “Luis” was on his way to deliver me a club sandwich, fries and a shake in 35 minutes. I sat back on the couch, wondering what to pull up on Netflix as I waited. One episode of Jeopardy! later, my phone buzzed with a text: “i’m outside with ur food.”
After grabbing the bag, I raced back to my coffee table and surveyed the haul. It was only then that I realized the horror of what I’d done.
The club sandwich smelled delicious, but a plastic lid had trapped its warmth, wilting the lettuce and turning the toasted bread into a limp blanket of carbs. The fries were in the first stages of room-temp rigor mortis, having evolved from golden crisp to plasticine. The chocolate shake sloshed like a pool of Nesquik. The order cost $24 after fees and a tip. The horror!
The online food delivery industry has exploded from a niche into mainstream popularity over the course of the last five years. For the first time ever, in 2015, Americans spent more money on restaurants than on groceries. And by 2020, experts believe more than half of that restaurant spending will be “off-premise,” aka takeout, delivery and other remote consumption.
Companies like Postmates, DoorDash, Grubhub and UberEats have revolutionized the delivery industry by taking the job out of restaurants’ hands and maximizing networks for both data and drivers. They’re now in the midst of a marketing blitz that appears to be attracting a wave of young people. Reports suggest the delivery trend is primarily powered by urban-dwelling millennials, who are now attracted to an endless (literal) menu of foods and wait times under an hour in most major cities.
Here’s the question we really ought to be asking ourselves, though: Is it worth it?
That’s what I wondered as I chewed through the club sandwich, wishing I’d just sobered up a little and driven to the diner to enjoy a properly hot meal served on actual plates. I winced at the extra money I’d wasted for the privilege of being bummed out. Then there were the plastic utensils, containers and bag that lay strewn before me. Given that the U.S. has some of the lowest recycling rates in the developed world, it’s no surprise that there’s a “trash epidemic” brewing thanks to our love of takeout.
And when it comes to food quality, there’s a reason why certain dishes like fried rice and pizza have held up as the gold-standard archetypes for what delivery food ought to be. “It’s the law of thermodynamics,” says Shawn Pham, the chef and co-owner of Fiona Bakery in L.A. Fiona offers pickup and delivery as a matter of smart business, but Pham himself avoids those options “99 percent of the time.”
To him, it’s obvious that food tastes better when it’s fresh and hot (surprise!), and he says it’s tough to anticipate what will happen to the food when it leaves a restaurant’s doors (including drivers touching and tasting it). Scroll through Yelp and you’ll see an expanse of people complaining about how their orders didn’t look as pretty, or taste as good, as they expected — a result that frustrates restaurants, not just consumers.
“The main problem is expectations. People need to know that there’s a limit to how much the restaurant can control the law of thermodynamics,” Pham explains. “It’s almost a lose-lose all the way around, in my opinion. Excess packaging that creates more waste, the food isn’t consumed how it was intended to be consumed, potential for spillage, among other things. No food gets better or benefits from takeout or delivery.”
It’s a take mirrored by Farley Elliott, the senior editor of popular dining blog Eater Los Angeles, who sees delivery as a flawed option for those who want to eat at home without cooking. “Delivery food is the worst representation of a restaurant’s capabilities, and it’s often more expensive than just eating at the restaurant itself,” he tells me. “Owners have to jack up prices to keep their margins when using delivery services, and those same apps and services add their own fees on top, so all you end up with is lukewarm food that got shaken up a bunch in a car ride.”
But wait, I *like* delivery, you mutter. It’s just handy! And yes, there are certainly some upsides to having someone else bring you dinner. My colleague Jeff Gross, a fellow foodie, tells me how he often hated placing delivery orders before the advent of extensive online services. “They’d put you on hold for too long, or if you were ordering anything where English wasn’t a first language, you ran the risk of fucking up an order. You were also embarrassed whenever you ordered double what a normal human might,” he says.
That’s probably why regardless of what people think, the delivery trend doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. So I did some highly scientific research to create “A Unified Theory of Good Versus Shitty Delivery Foods,” based on a few key principles.
1) Beware deep-fried items. Delivery fries is an offender that came up again and again when I asked friends, food writers and professional cooks. The risk grows with something like fried seafood, fried chicken and other delicately crispy items, which get worse in flavor and texture as each minute ticks away (yes, cold fried chicken is delicious; no, that’s not what you paid for).
2) But grease is good! Remember Pham’s riff on the laws of thermodynamics? Well, hot fat tends to stay extremely hot for a long time, especially if the other ingredients hold up under that heat. That’s one reason why Chinese standards like chow mein and orange chicken are so beloved — it tastes, for the most part, like it does when it arrives on a platter in the restaurant. All kinds of Asian stir-fries, from Thai to Korean, succeed as delivery foods because the hearty ingredients can hold on to the heat. This also applies to pizza, mac and cheese, a fat Mexican carnitas burrito, lamb shawarma…
3) Under the same principle, hot liquid foods are often a solid choice. Soups, stews and curries fit the bill, but beware the noodle soup. Even when the noodles and broth are packaged separately, the magic of digging into a ripping hot bowl of chewy, perfect noodles seems to completely disappear with a car ride. A number of people told me that Vietnamese pho is a major disappointment when delivered, which is a shame given how good it is at fixing hangovers.
4) Cold dishes, like salads, deli subs and other appetizers, work pretty well. Just make sure to get anything liquid, like dressing and sauces, on the side. Maybe avoid sushi, though — the delicate balance of fresh, cool fish and warm rice gets wrecked over time.
“Avoid things that get soggy and look for things that are easy to reheat without too much deterioration. Basically most dishes that are good as leftovers should be good for takeout or delivery,” Pham concludes.
What then can change to improve the vast, diverse world of delivery food options at our fingertips today? Gross notes that pictures of the delivery food, not the original dish, would be helpful when perusing menus. Changes to packaging could also help certain dishes shine, and it’s important to note that significant changes to delivery business models are needed to get more money to drivers and the actual restaurants, which remains a major ethical concern. “But look, some food just wasn’t meant to be eaten 30 minutes later than it was cooked. I’m sure that someone could innovate better packaging for your French fries, but is it worth it?” Gross asks. “I’m not so sure.”
So instead, Elliott says, save your money and time for a proper meal out, where you can experience “community, hospitality and craft” alongside “a perfectly cooked piece of food.”