Armando Aguilar was having a great month.
The Dallas native got hired to a new executive chef job at a local bar that’s a semifinalist for a James Beard Award.
Days later, he got married and went on a honeymoon to Mexico, the country where he’d gone to culinary school and spent years working in kitchens of all kinds.
Then the first day of his new chef job rolled around — the very same day that the city of Dallas shut down all dine-in restaurant and bar service.
His new employer, acclaimed mezcaleria Las Almas Rotas, was forced into a quick pivot of their business model, which relied on customers spending an hour or two at the bar, sampling taster glasses and flights of premium spirits. The bar’s food wasn’t quite an afterthought, but it wasn’t the star of the show, either.
But now the bar is closed, and Aguilar’s new menu items and tweaks are suddenly in the forefront.
His handiwork is delivered through the passenger windows of cars, or to the gloved hands of bikers and pedestrians. Through a secret side door in the back, Las Almas Rotas employees created an impromptu drive-thru setup using the alley between their building and the next. They also rebranded their business: Las Almost Rotas.
“We did briefly kind of consider shutting down, but we just thought that as long as they’re going to give us an opportunity to serve our customers with food, that we really ought to try to leverage our kitchen,” says the bar’s co-owner, Taylor Samuels. “Let’s make a run at keeping as many people employed as we can, and at the same time focusing on food and giving this new chef a job, so that maybe when we come out of this, we’ll have an established, experienced team in the kitchen.”
As staff members assemble my order — which includes a sheet pan of enchiladas, a chorizo verde burrito, elotes and a 200-milliliter bottle of mezcal — I nod along to the beat and enjoy the sunset view through the papel picado above.
One of Las Almost Rotas’ two crucial insights as a to-go restaurant was its belief that, in the time of coronavirus, getting in your car and going to pick up food should be an event. This isn’t an ordinary taco run. For some of us, it’s the only time we’ll put on pants all day.
And that’s why I love this festive alleyway. In days that blur together into a smear of homebound couch-sitting — is this Thursday? — a drive-thru with bright colors and loud music is a little reminder that other people still exist, and they still know how to have fun.
That little moment of joy is exactly what they were going for.
“My girlfriend Emily said people are going to be bored to tears at home watching TV,” Samuels says. “Even for a moment, they’re going to relish being in a car, driving to your bar, picking up food and beverages, and then driving home. And if you give them something different, something more than running out to their car with a paper bag, that’s going to mean a lot to them.”
Just days after I visited, the city of Dallas began a construction project in Las Almas Rotas’ alley, digging holes in the new drive-thru. But contractors reached a deal with the bar’s owners, and now restaurant service begins at 5 p.m. on weekdays, when the crews’ shift ends, and at noon on weekends.
The second insight in this drive-thru is Aguilar’s freedom to create experimental new menu items, including a burrito with chorizo verde, rice and beans ($12) and weekend specials like migas ($7).
So far the big hit is a sheet pan of five chicken enchiladas with morita pepper sauce ($13). They’re still tweaking the enchilada recipe to account for the condensation, which accumulates in the to-go container and softens the tortillas, but there’s no need to second guess the fiercely spicy morita chiles or the excellent pulled chicken filling.
To sweeten the deal, Las Almas found a variety of small-format bottles of tequila and mezcal, most of them about the size of a flask, which they can add to any order. I drove home with a small bottle of Rey Campero mezcal tucked in next to my food.
It’s important to remember that even if a business looks like they have the answers to this crisis, that can change in an instant. Las Almas Rotas is experimenting, and so far they’ve been able to rehire six staff members to help with takeout service, but the surprise construction already dealt them one setback. And they’re bracing for more.
Samuels says the next big risk is upper-middle-class consumers in the corporate world whose employers are just beginning to slash payroll.
“We’re going to start seeing people make tougher decisions on their weekly disposable income,” he says. “Where they may have been able to spend $200-$300 on to-go food, local farmers, local food, when that number goes to under $100 or zero, then it’s going to impact us dramatically.”
Las Almas Rotas, 3615 Parry Ave. (Fair Park/South Dallas). Drive-thru hours are 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.