We walked into Donabe [Doh-nah-bay] on a recent Thursday evening. The parking lot was full, Paseo del Pueblo was heavy with cars traveling in both directions. For a moment as we entered the busy restaurant things felt nearly 'normal' - whatever that means. The waitstaff were carrying drinks and trays of food, customers were reading menus and the kitchen was alive with the energy that comes from pleasing hungry diners who may have brought with them B.C. expectations - 'Before COVID.'
Anyone who may think the pandemic is over or that life has returned to that undefined 'normal' is misguided. In less than a minute of waiting to be seated, it was obvious that Donabe, like every restaurant and business in Taos and all over the nation, is in the eye of the storm.
Stacked along the walls of the vestibule and into the kitchen area were 35-40 boxes and cartons full of food and provisions. Life in B.C. times meant that those food deliveries arrived on time, during off-hours when staff had ample time to open the cartons of foods that required refrigeration, to stock and organize according to their need.
But that was then and this is now. And that means Donabe owner, Marshall Thompson, and his staff, who had waited all day for a delivery, had no choice but to juggle yet another ball. As the tables began to fill, the delivery arrived at the worst possible time.
The hostess and waitstaff proceeded as if everything was "normal." We were seated, our glasses immediately filled with water, menus placed in front of us. Within minutes a waiter was at our table.
It was my chef friend who pointed out the hours-late delivery and explained the nuances of what that means for the staff who are not only serving customers and maintaining high-quality service, but are also identifying boxes that need to be handled immediately for refrigeration and the ones that can wait until later.
Perhaps it was the behind-the-scene knowledge that helped me to appreciate my meal all the more. Who knew Donabe serves some of the best cocktails in town, including specials each week? The restaurant that started as an unassuming noodle cart has grown into a full-service establishment.
Holding true to its Asian theme, cocktails are made with sake, like the Madam Butterfly, featuring lychee-infused sake and choices such as the Sake Mule or Sake Champagne Mojito made with the house sake. For those who prefer to steer clear of all thing's sake, including a sake-flight tasting, there are beers, wines, margaritas and other cocktails made with other liquors.
Local and national news outlets, including this writer, have highlighted the plight of the service industry as we awkwardly navigate this new phase of the pandemic. Expectations for my dining experience were relatively low given the reality of the times: not enough people to work which has resulted in unprecedented stress on those who are working, and no guarantees on whether or not deliveries will arrive on time or if the order is complete - which is rare in these times of national and global shortages.
The delivery debacle had happened, yet few would have noticed. If the Donabe staff felt pressure, they didn't show it. The attentive busser who kept our water glasses filled took the time to smile and talk with us - and those positive vibes, like every chef proclaims - come through in the food.
"Good food starts with taking care of staff and loving them for being here," explained Thompson. "We can't operate like these are normal times, because they're not."
The fresh spring rolls that had folks standing in line at the noodle cart are indeed, "same as it ever was," despite the fact that normal left town long ago. The shrimp-stuffed quahog clams are phenomenal, which is saying a lot given the fact that this East Coast native grew up eating seafood. There are curries, ramen dishes and hot pot dishes served in a traditional donabe bowl - which is where the restaurant gets its name.
Donabe is not yet open for lunch and the number of reservations have had to be reduced, which is one key to Donabe's pandemic success. "Our menu is customized to the size of our staff and to ensure the high quality of every meal we serve," noted Thompson.
When asked if it's true that food tastes better when made with love, Thompson replied, "Robots can be programmed to make food, but it's the love and the care that makes the difference. You've got to have the love."
There's a lot of love being served at Donabe.