Photo by Nikki Buchanan
We’ve all noticed the increase in pop-ups and ghost kitchens since COVID-19 put a kink in day-to-day restaurant operations, but here’s a trend that seems to be thriving within the confines of the new normal: the commissary kitchen, cloud kitchen, virtual kitchen, shared-use commercial kitchen… there are a half dozen names for basically the same thing. Shared-use kitchens aren’t a new phenomenon, of course. Caterers and other small food business startups have been using them for years, but their popularity is growing thanks to increased consumer interest in takeout and delivery. No need for a budding restaurateur to pay rent on a 1500-square-foot restaurant space (which will require hard-to-find servers, furniture, décor, yada yada) when he or she can rent a 300-square-foot kitchen for considerably less.
I didn’t realize I was headed for a cloud kitchen when I sought out Tambayan at Joann’s, a Filipino joint getting raves for its lechon kawali. Turns out, this virtual restaurant resides within a big green warehouse on Highland Avenue, just west of Seventh Avenue. Except for a small sign that says something about takeout and delivery, there is nothing to indicate the dozen or so similar restaurant operations inside.
Given my deep and abiding love for real-life restaurant dining, I’m shocked to say, I love the way this whole thing works. For Tambayan (and I suspect most of the others in this space), you can order online and ahead of time through DoorDash, Uber Eats, Seamless, etc. or you can order from a little computer placed in the small, pleasant entry (the only part of this space open to the public), which is also furnished with numbered lockers, where food is placed for pickup without need for human interaction. If you’re within delivery range, your energy output is even less.
Photo by Nikki Buchanan
We ordered on site and waited just a little under 30 minutes for our order, so maybe ordering ahead is wise. And because we didn’t want the food to cool during the 20-minute drive back home, we ate it on the spot at one of the two high-top tables provided. As you can imagine, there is nothing about eating in what amounts to a hallway-sized waiting room that feels like a restaurant experience, but we weren’t expecting one. It just seemed like the expedient thing to do.
Logistics aside, the food is great. I’m especially excited about the dish I came for — the deep-fried pork belly called lechon kawali, cut in cubes and set atop a banana leaf in the takeout box ($12.99). Its salty, ultra-crunchy exterior gives way to a layer of fat that in turn yields to a juicy piece of pork, redolent with garlic and almost pork chop-like in texture, that cedes again to the deep-brown, blistered crackle of the bottom layer. You wouldn’t think the meat could get any better, but it does when you dunk it in Sawsawan, a clear vinegar-based sauce whose sharpness cuts through the fattiness of the pork. The dish comes with a mound of plain white rice (a blank slate for meat and sauce) and three crispy cylinders of lumpia — dainty, deep-fried Filipino-style spring rolls, stuffed with ground pork, onion and carrot. A dip in sweet-and-sour (and only faintly spicy) chile sauce gilds the lily.
The menu also offers a handful of silog dishes, silog being breakfast dishes containing garlic-fried rice (sinangag), lumpia, a fried egg and some sort of meat. We chose Longsilog ($12.99), which is longganisa — garlicky nubbins of lusciously sweet sausage. For acidic contrast, bright yellow strings of atchara (pickled papaya).
As much as I appreciate the need for the commissary kitchen concept, I still prefer a traditional restaurant setting — especially for cultural excursions such as this one. If we’re lucky, Tambayan (which means “a place for hanging out”) will live up to its name someday.
720 W. Highland Ave., Phoenix, 623-806-2532