For a long time, Zea was a go-to place for us. We were there every week. This is a restaurant that exemplifies the meaning of “American Food.” It is mid-priced, or at least gives the impression it is mid-priced, and the menu is diverse enough to offer something different enough that you don’t feel like you are eating off the same menu over and over again. Mostly though, Zea is good. There has never been anything that came to the table that I wouldn’t get again.
Zea is the concept brought to us by the Taste Buds of Semolina fame, Gary Darling, Hans Limburg, and Greg Reggio. It was a great name they chose, because these three buds from Copeland’s branched out to form Semolina 30 years ago, and they definitely know taste.
Semolina spawned Zea, and then Mizado, a short-lived avant garde concept that arrived in 2014 and departed nearly as quickly. Too bad. The Taste Buds have never done anything that wasn’t stylish, sophisticated, fun, and delicious.
Whether it was the McDonald’s cheeseburger pasta at Semolina, Thai ribs at Zea, or the duck tamal at Mizado diners could be pretty sure about anything they ordered at any Taste Buds establishment.
Now there is only one bud since the younger Greg Reggio bought out his retiring partners. My only complaint about Zea is the stagnation of the menu, but few places constantly overhaul thier menus, especially at a price point like this. Zea has made some changes in offering smaller portions and getting in on the “shareables” hipness.
It is customary in these Dining Diary pieces to recommend stars of the menu, but everything on the menu here is solid enough that you can’t go wrong. Zea has a great burger, a chicken sandwich before the sandwich became a phenom, (NOTE: The Honey Island Chicken Sandwich was really very good, but seems bland now that the spicy chicken sandwich is the standard. The Zea version is still good but only if you want a respite from the other hot versions.) a robust selection of meats from a rotisserie, good salads where the pepper jelly vinaigrette first entered our consciousness, local specialty entrees, and an eclectic group of appetizers like Mediterranean hummus and duck empanadas.
Enter 2020 and the end of the world as we knew it. Tom’s nightmare (take-out food) became the norm, the only way to get food, and the salvation of the restaurant industry. Food delivery services, which were around before COVID, became essential to the acquisition of restaurant food, and the “ghost kitchen” thrived.
A ghost kitchen is a millennial byproduct, suitable to a generation whose culinary habits are completely different from any previous group. A ghost kitchen is almost a mythical place existing purely on an app. The customer places an order through the app and the food is delivered to their door. The menu is on their phone, the table is their own, the waiter is Uber or Waitr. SO...soulless. While such an experience did exist before 2020, COVID was its moment. It arrived, but it will not depart.
The Taste Buds were always visionaries. The empire that Semolina became until its contraction and eventual closure in 2020 started in a teeny space in Covington. I remember Tom going to the opening and returning with the news that “those three guys would make a fortune with their all-pasta menu.” They saw it in the future, because at that time pasta was still called macaroni.
And now they imagine again, creating RibLab in a ghost kitchen that isn’t really all that ghosty. RibLab comes from the Covington Zea kitchen, delivered exclusively by Waitr, and as fans of the Thai ribs, we had to try it.
I brought the sides to the party, because only fries are available online. This is all about the ribs. We ordered Classic Hickory ribs, Peri Peri Pepper, Korean Gochujang, Mango Habanero, and Sweet Heat Red Chili.
We were told the ribs would arrive in an hour. A woman in an SUV called up to the balcony my name, and upon affirmation, pulled over to deliver a large bag full of boxes. One large brown paper bag full of five small boxes with four ribs each, and a large box of fries was $78. So 20 ribs and some fries were $78. The subtotal, before fees, delivery, and driver tip, was $51.50 We opened the package. The fries were cold and the ribs lukewarm.
All of the ribs were meaty and saucy, some with sesame seeds and others chopped nuts. One had an Asian slaw at the bottom, and all were presented nicely in the little boxes and taped with their names and the hip RibLab logo on the sticker that sealed the box.
The hickory ribs were pretty basic, topped with a thick hickory barbecue sauce. The Mango Habanero was instantly identifiable with a spice that caught me in the throat with the first bite. We liked the Peri Peri the best, and the Korean Gochujang, surprisingly, the least.The Peri Peri had an interesting crisp on the meat around the edges. Most of these flavors were strikingly similar.
All of them were not as good as they would have been at the restaurant. Next time we wants Zea ribs, we will go to the restaurant and order the original Thai version. We will leave this dining-by-app experience to those more tech-centric eaters. This is not dining.