Pittsburgh Dining at a Distance: Baby Loves Tacos

Take-home meal kits are keeping Zach Shell and Kat Muscianesi’s Millvale location humming.
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PHOTOS BY HAL B. KLEIN

Like many restaurant owners, Baby Loves Tacos’ Zach Shell and Kat Muscianesi decided to temporarily close their business in the wake of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. They made their decision with the intention to find a way to come back with a new model as soon as possible, keeping their small staff on the payroll.

“We wanted to make sure we were responsible with how we did it,” Shell says. “How do we respond to the needs and desires of the customers in a safe way?”

The duo took a few weeks to find a focus, talking about what was working for restaurants inside and outside of Pittsburgh. Meal kits felt like the right choice. The idea has become popular across the country; it’s starting to catch on in Pittsburgh, and I think it’s one of the most effective ways for restaurants to move forward for the foreseeable physically distant future. While items such as stew hold up, most dishes are significantly better when served straight from the kitchen than they are transported in a steamy to-go container. To ensure a fresh and tasty meal, chefs are breaking up meals into an assemblage of cooked and raw ingredients. It requires a little, but not too much, work at home to put it all back together.

Baby Loves Tacos previously had a robust catering business, so the transition to meal kits was reasonably seamless. Preparing containers with accouterment for a make-your-own taco party, plus enough for leftovers, is a smart way to go. “The type of food that we do, and the various offerings we’ve had, we’ve been able to be pretty nimble and agile. What will travel well? What will reheat and still be flavorful?” Shell says.

The new menu is straightforward. Customers pick a base option such as braised chicken, buffalo cauliflower or “The Meats,” and everyone gets a set of corn tortillas and standard fillings such as black beans, pico de gallo and cheese; add-ons such as corn salsa and sweet potatoes are available to augment the meal. Shell says he plans on making small changes to the menu each week and will also introduce new dishes as the restaurant gets into the swing of things.

Shell and Muscianesi post a menu on Instagram on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Orders are placed via email (babylovestacos@mail.com); an online ordering platform is in the works. Once all the orders are in, everyone is assigned a 10-minute slot to pick up food at Baby Loves Tacos’ Millvale location the following day (its Bloomfield storefront remains closed for now). Shell says the timing allows for maximum social distancing and the advanced orders help the Baby Loves Tacos culinary team prepare meals with minimum food waste.

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Limiting the meals to Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday also provides maximum opportunity for Shell and his culinary team to prepare meals with limited contact among staff — one cook works in Millvale, one in Bloomfield and Shell puts it all together in the evening. “If you can develop trust and reliability, that goes a long way with growing your business in this new space,” he says.

Pick-up was a snap; my bag was marked and waiting for me at a table by one of the windows in the spacious storefront. Later that day, I griddled a few corn tortillas and gently heated a half-cup each of brisket and chicken thighs on my stovetop. I paired the brisket with hot sauce, sour cream, cilantro and slaw, and the chicken with pico de gallo, salsa verde and Monterey Jack cheese and enjoyed a very satisfying dinner. On top of that, I had an arsenal of leftovers.

I’m still repurposing components into my home-cooked meals. On Sunday, I made flour tortillas (with Fallen Aspen Farm lard and a touch of Frankferd Farm whole-wheat flour) and stuffed them with a brisket/chicken combination, black beans, brown rice, corn, pico and cheese, and topped the whole thing with hot sauce and salsa verde. Although I was feeling blue that I wasn’t able to see my mom, Sally, on Mother’s Day, digging into that burrito transported me to California for a short time; food memories are a powerful emotional prompt. On Monday, I warmed the as-yet-untouched chorizo in a skillet and topped it with pickled onions, a fried Rivendale Farms egg and a touch of Cafe Agnes salsa negra; paired with a salad of Tiny Seed Farm spring mix, it made for a lovely lunch. Later that night, I sandwiched the rest of the shredded cheese and pickled onions inside a duo of corn tortillas, cooked it crisp in pork and duck fat and had the most glorious midnight snack.

All-in-all, the Baby Loves Tacos meal-kit experience was delightful. The only thing I’d like to see with it is short set of instructions — something as simple as “make sure to heat the corn tortillas” is a nice reminder for novice taco makers, and I think all of us would dig a recipe or two for the leftovers. It’s aligned with the way Shell is thinking about the experience, too. “The customer has to be a part of the process now. Before this, you could just sit down, order your food and eat. Now, if you want it to taste the same, you have to participate in the process,” he says.

Ed. note: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect email address. Baby Loves Tacos can be reached at babylovestacos@mail.com

Categories: PGHeats