Speedy gourmet

Quick, healthy, ready-made meals on the go

Polenta cake with portobello mushrooms, arugula pesto, caponata sauce and mascarpone cheese.

Polenta cake with portobello mushrooms, arugula pesto, caponata sauce and mascarpone cheese.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Ready Chef Go
980 Mangrove Ave.
Open daily, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

My least favorite moment when I’m staying in a motel is when “housekeeping” knocks on the door. It’s two minutes of awkward, forced intimacy with a faux-cheerful stranger.

More and more I find I feel the same way about servers. “Hi, I’m your new BFF Thad—let’s enthuse over tonight’s specials together …” At least with servers I’m not in my underwear.

In fact, that whole sit-down restaurant thing seems more and more like a burden to me. You can’t see the food you’re choosing, you have to sit and wait for 15 minutes to eat, and you have to tip, everyone’s favorite encounter with karmic guilt.

There’s a new, less pressured approach to eating out, and Ready Chef Go, the catering company turned-bistro/market in tandem with the new Unwined at 980 restaurant—its more upscale and formal partner in the mall at 980 Mangrove Ave.—has it nailed. The food is premade and presented in glass cases so you can look it over. You order from a very short menu or grab a boxed meal from the cold case. If you wonder if the soup is too peppery, they give you a spoonful to try. You carry your meal to your table or home.

Everything at Ready Chef Go is unfussy: blackboard menu, soup in paper cups, plastic utensils.The décor is industrial chic—simple tables, high black ceiling with the now-obligatory exposed ducts (“Ducts, why is it always ducts?”—Galaxy Quest), gallon cans of chickpeas displayed on wire rack shelving. This approach can easily get impersonal and warehouse-y, but Ready Chef Go isn’t—it has a very pleasant aura of bustling energy, partly from the busy restaurant adjoining and partly from the staff, who always seem up and about.

The danger with any premade food place is that the food is generally either old or automat-plain. Ready Chef Go’s food is neither. I was assured the food comes out of the kitchen hourly, and everything on the menu is interesting, bright, flavorful and healthy. Their motto is “local fresh sustainable,” and they take all of that seriously. I was told the food is organic whenever possible, and something like 85 percent of it is locally sourced—thus the Llano Seco pork chop with Lundberg brown rice and seasonal grilled trumpet mushroom.

Chef Sean Mindrum is obviously determined to tweak every dish—you can almost count on at least one unexpected ingredient in whatever you eat (e.g., bacon in the mac and cheese, lamb in the cannelloni). This can easily get out of hand, but Mindrum’s taste so far appears to be impeccable and I’ve been delighted with his choices. Still, this isn’t a place to go if you’re craving the familiar: You can’t get a Coke, but you can get a bottle of Harney & Sons organic Soothing Green Tea.

The menu is Bay Area café trendy: Jamaican rice and beans, quiche, polenta, wraps and rice paper rolls, plus a salad bar that the owners take very seriously—three kinds of leaf, 24 toppings and good, interesting dressings. Prices are low considering the quality of what you’re getting—$6 for a large slice of quiche with simple but satisfying side salad, $5 for mac and cheese, $4 for a cup of soup.

The desserts are something special—made by Cory Davis of the erstwhile, legendary Cory’s Sweet Treats & Gallery, they’re worth a trip in, the oatmeal cake especially. It’s $6, and ordinarily I don’t consider $6 desserts in a world where a small sundae from Shubert’s Ice Cream & Candy can be had for $3.75, but in this case I don’t hesitate.