It's 3 a.m. at Pho Me Now, and Steven Hsiao and Anson Tsui are lifting weights. A basketball game is on the flatscreen. They're watching; they're lifting; the computer goes ding!
It's announcing that someone on Channing Way has just electronically ordered a bowl of pho, the Vietnamese beef-noodle soup traditionally served with meatballs, brisket, steak, tendons, and/or tripe. This customer wants the extra-large "Big Boy," along with fried lobster balls, two Apple Sidras, and sweet chili wings. Twenty minutes hence, the freshly cooked order is whisking through dark, silent wee-hours Berkeley to the customer's door. Pho Me Now's pho arrives with fresh beansprouts and rice noodles wrapped separately, to join the spiced broth right before eating.
Making life laughably easy, food-delivery services are the mark of a truly evolved civilization. Pizzerias and Chinese restaurants that deliver are so last millennium. Pho Me Now and other new delivery-only companies are turning a sideline into a specialty, bringing us what we want when we want it — stat.
Last year, Hsiao and Tsui were UC Berkeley seniors, a sociology and bioengineering major respectively, contemplating job-hunting.
"But we didn't want jobs," Tsui said. "We wanted freedom." Running their own business, albeit hard work, sounded better than wage slavery. As for what to sell, how, and to whom: "We lived in a fraternity house. We knew that when you party, you want food. You want to get this food through the Internet. And it's a known fact that pho works well on hangovers."
Within weeks of graduation, they were acquiring permits, ordering supplies, and researching recipes online. Pho Me Now — a sassy name, given that pho is correctly pronounced not "foe" but "fuh" — officially opened last October. Two months later, the men founded another student-friendly food-delivery company, Munchy Munchy Hippos, specializing in the thrifty (as in $2 orders of pasta with bacon), the hefty (as in bacon-wrapped quarter-pound hot dogs), and the deep-fried (as in Ding Dongs). Open nightly between 6 p.m. and 4 a.m., both outfits operate out of a University Avenue space where Hsiao cooks just as he's done for fun since childhood.
"A lot of people have heard about things like deep-fried Snickers bars being served at county fairs, but haven't tried them," Hsiao said. "We're here to bridge that gap. When we started, we offered only items we liked — that is, fattening items. Customer feedback told us we had to balance those out with lower-fat and vegetarian items." Onto the menus leaped mushroom pho, meatless garlic noodles, and smoked-tofu sandwiches.
Innovation morphs tradition. While brisket is traditionally cooked for four hours and sliced very thinly for pho, Pho Me Now's brisket cooks for eight hours before being sliced a full centimeter thick.
"We invented that," Tsui beamed.
They also invented the Trippy Skippy, comprising peanut-sauce chicken and sweet-potato fries on a bun, and their own version of the croque madame: marshmallow creme and Nutella between two slices of French toast.
"This is our first go at anything," Hsiao said. "We want it to be fun."
West Oakland-based Jubilant Jaguar doesn't deliver within twenty minutes. Twenty-four hours is more like it. But 100-percent organic vegan tamales are worth the wait, especially in flavors such as Thai peanut, coconut curry, green mole, blueberry barbecued "chicken," spicy "chorizo," pineapple teriyaki, and roasted tomato. Not wild enough? JJ can customize. Want blue-corn tamales? Seasonal vegetables or fruit? Allergen-free? Just ask.
After their wedding last year, Tiffany Esquivel and Sylvester Chitica didn't want a typical honeymoon. Instead, the food-loving pair sold and gave away virtually all of their possessions, then set off south of the border, aiming to learn all they could about Mexican and Central American cuisine.
"Everywhere we went, we met locals who invited us into their homes and showed us how to make traditional meals," Esquivel said. "If we showed any interest in, say, salsa, people would bring us home and teach us their grandmothers' recipes for salsa." Although she and Chitica are both of Mexican heritage, "our families are very American, so we had to learn how to do all this from scratch."
They learned a lot. Having founded Jubilant Jaguar last July, the pair now spends the day before each delivery making tamales: Because they're so labor-intensive, each order must include thirty or more and comes with a variety of sauces, mild and hot. Side orders include empanadas, salsas, and Spanish rice. Serving the East Bay and San Francisco, Chitica and Esquivel show true commitment to their values by including eco-friendly plates, napkins, and utensils in every order and making nearby deliveries via bike cart.
When Marika Brussel isn't teaching ballet in Berkeley and Alameda, she's delivering farm-fresh produce door-to-door.
After twenty years spent dancing professionally, Brussel launched Organic-Now. Every week, she drives to Valley End Farm near Petaluma. There, in accordance with the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model that was first introduced into the United States from Europe in 1984, 100 percent certified organic fruits and vegetables, hand-picked that morning, are packed into boxes that Brussel then delivers to her subscribers' doorsteps all over the East Bay and San Francisco.
For $25 a pop, each subscriber gets an assortment of seven to ten different types of seasonal produce, with more than one piece of each type. For $6 more, the box can also include a dozen free-range, cage-free, antiobiotic-free, hormone-free eggs.
"It's cheaper than it would be if you bought all these things at Whole Foods," noted Brussel.
What goes into the boxes varies with the seasons, but she ensures that each assortment "is created for health, with a lot of green stuff and always something cruciferous" — that is, part of the large cancer-fighting Brassica family that includes cauliflower, kohlrabi, broccoli, and bok choy.
Summer highlights at woman-owned Valley End include corn, pepper, eggplant, six different varieties of melon, three of cucumber, and several dozen of heirloom tomato and heirloom squash.
The same day she makes deliveries, Brussel emails her subscribers recipes based on the items included in that week's box.
"Most of these people are parents with small kids. They want home-cooked family meals, but they don't have time to shop, and they definitely don't have time to figure out how to prepare something they've never worked with before. I want to make people feel more comfortable about cooking," said Brussel, who began dancing at age three, trained at the Joffrey Ballet School, and spent years as a company member with the Ballet Theater of New Mexico. "What if they don't know what to do with Jerusalem artichokes?" When these high-carb tubers appeared in the boxes, Organic-Now subscribers received instructions for roasting them with olive oil and garlic.
Rice 'N' Spice delivers low-priced but luscious Indian food, which can be ordered online. May Flower delivers dim sum all day. Nude Sushi delivers long after midnight. Green Papaya delivers vegetarian Thai food. For a fee, EZ Dine Inn delivers breakfast, lunch, and dinner from more than forty different East Bay restaurants. Owners Pratap and Vimala Seelam founded the business in 2001 after working for Room Service, one of the Bay Area's first food-delivery outfits.
Whether planned or spontaneous, food delivered to your door solves all kinds of problems. It's too hot to cook, too cold or wet or late or early to venture outside. You're busy. You've got mobility issues. You're too drunk or high to drive. You're in hiding. You're famished, and only nigiri, faux-chorizo tamales, or a side of tripe will do.