Upon entering the great unknown of the supermarket during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's kind of nice knowing that you can grab Coltivare's famous black pepper spaghetti or a Korean braised beef and dumpling dish from Chris Shepherd's Underbelly Hospitality. It's another option for supporting a favorite local restaurant (H-E-B is giving all profits to those restaurants).
But here's the $12 question: Are these heat-and-eat meals worth the cost? I wanted to find out, and also remember what it felt like to eat restaurant-quality food, so I visited H-E-B and bought a bunch of these meals. The following is a rundown of each dish that I tried:
Dr. Pepper beef short rib and cheese grits | Cherry Block Craft Butcher
I'm a fan of Jessica DeSham Timmons's work at this Bravery Chef Hall stalwart, and I'm a big fan of literally every word on this menu item. This is a 10-ounce package of shredded short rib relaxing in golden grits, and instructions say to heat two to three minutes in a microwave. I went three minutes (my microwave isn't the strongest) and this was scalding coming out. But once transferred to a fancy plate, it was the right warmth. A good dish—the cheese grits are rightly rich.
Red beans and rice with andouille | Cherry Block Craft Butcher
This eight-ounce serving is supposed to be reheated on stove top, but it can be microwaved (I imagine two minutes is fine). It took just three minutes of stirring on medium-high heat to get this right, and the result was a smoky joy of a side. Big thumbs up.
Rigatoni Bolognese | Coltivare
No black pepper spaghetti available, so I grabbed what I thought was the next best thing. This is a 16-ounce package, but the pasta didn't cover the entire width of the container, so I felt a little cheated. Instructions say to reheat in the microwave, with the cover sealed, for five minutes. I did, and the result was dry, overcooked pasta that was even crispy. Next time I'll try three to four minutes in the microwave.
Chicken king ranch casserole | Underbelly Hospitality
At first glance, this dish in a 16-ounce container looks like a kids' meal: shredded cheese fills the top over what I can best call a brown mass of food. Plan a little ahead for the reheat: Set the oven to 350 F, and when ready, place the package uncovered in the oven. Cook time is 12–15 minutes, and I probably waited 17 minutes before taking the package out (my oven also sweats it out), and that was right for me: This was a melty, decadent comfort dinner with sliced chiles providing a punch of heat. I'd get it again.
Korean braised beef and dumplings | Underbelly Hospitality
Yes, it's beef and not goat this time around, but the key to this dish are the supple dumplings and very necessary gochujang heat. This 16-ounce heat-and-eat version had the latter in spades, but the former? Like with the king ranch casserole, Underbelly wants you to heat it for 12–15 minutes in a 350-degree oven, lid off. It was all right, and the flavors were certainly strong, but the dumplings were on the gummy side. I'd get this again to see if there's a different result next time.
Turtle soup | Brennan's of Houston
This Gulf classic comes in a 12-ounce container, and the instructions: Pour into a microwave safe bowl and heat for two minutes. Stir, then heat another minute. Serve. It's good, perfectly thick and stout. Like the king ranch casserole and red beans and rice, especially, it's exactly the comfort food I crave.
When I'm settling in for a night of Netflix and a bottle of wine or beer, give me that chicken king ranch casserole, a good deal with about a pound of food to devour. I'd also suggest doing a Cherry Block dinner (there are additional Cherry Block items, like its gumbo, at H-E-B), especially if it's you and a quarantine partner sharing plates.
Also, be on the lookout for items from Hugo's. H-E-B announced Monday that James Beard award-winning chef Hugo Ortega is the latest to partner up with the grocery chain. Hopefully H-E-B can hook up with some lesser-known and smaller-time operators (I'd love to see, say, a Kin curry dish available for heat-and-eat), because the more options we have to support, the better we're doing.