One of the few things I miss about living in New York City is ordering from Miss Saigon, a since closed Vietnamese restaurant on the Upper East Side. I ordered from the restaurant at least two times a week and always marveled at the speed with which they delivered their food. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say the food arrived even before I hung up the phone to place an order.

Like most NYC restaurants in those days, Miss Saigon had its own delivery people, all of whom rode bicycles. On the rare instance when the restaurant screwed up, like the time they forgot to include the brown rice I ordered, they delivered the side order well before I finished the entrée. I still marvel about the incident.

Over time I got to know the delivery people, as well as the young woman who routinely took my order. She knew me as Mr. Eric, light oil, low sodium, extra chopsticks on 65th Street. I’d make a point of saying hello to her and the delivery people whenever I visited the restaurant. For me, Miss Saigon wasn’t just a place that served food. It was a restaurant run by people I got to know and grew quite fond of.

Miss Saigon’s new NYC location.

Here in Los Angeles, restaurants rely on delivery apps like Door Dash, Uber Eats, Postmates, and other companies. It’s a wonder to me why anyone would rely on these services as their delivery times can take as much as an hour. That’s not because it takes an hour to prepare the food.

At a Chinese restaurant I use for takeout and arrive early so I can promptly get the food home, I once noticed an order that was on the counter during my entire wait. The cashier told me the food had been there for about 20 minutes awaiting pickup from one of the delivery apps services. Eating food cooked in a wok and boiling in its juices for an hour doesn’t strike me as particularly appetizing.

The rare time I ordered through a delivery app was quite frustrating. I received the wrong order and the restaurant’s kitchen had closed when I called. The restaurant said it couldn’t issue me a refund because I ordered through the delivery app. The delivery app company didn’t have a telephone number, so I emailed them. I heard back the following day from someone obviously based overseas who did issue a refund, but it wasn’t accompanied with a sincere apology. I can understand why someone in the Philippines wasn’t particularly bothered that I didn’t get the chicken I ordered the night before.

What I find frustrating and confusing is that many of L.A. restaurants require that you order takeout through designated delivery apps. It would seem to me that it would be cheaper to employ someone to answer the phone and take orders rather than rely on a delivery app company to process them and take a cut of the profits. I imagine that some kid in his pajamas could develop a custom app for restaurants to take online orders.

The major problem with delivery and reservation apps is they place a barrier between restaurants and their customers. For me, the thrill of visiting great restaurants like the ones owned by Danny Meyer and Wolfgang Puck are as much the people who work there as the food. The people manning the reservation lines were typically a good indicator of the experience their restaurants offered.

The restaurant I most often order from is called SUGARFISH, a local chain of Los Angeles area sushi restaurants which also has locations in New York City. It’s a weekly ritual. I place an order at the Beverly Hills location and then head over to the ritzy enclave to walk my dog and play The Invisible Man. It’s a game where I count the number of fashionable young women who pet my adorable Golden Retriever without noticing there is a person on the other end of the leash. Quite a humbling experience. If you must know, the record is six within the space of an hour.

SUGARFISH done right.

When SUGARFISH gets it right, which is most of the time, the restaurant is unrivaled in terms of quality and underpriced given what some of its competitors charge with considerably lower standards. I get “Don’t Think, Just Eat,” which is the chef’s choice. The order is a work of art and laid out in a manner that makes clear the person who prepared it took great pride in doing so. The fish is so fresh it’s easy to imagine it was swimming just moments earlier.

Having ordered from SUGARFISH so many times I noticed a pattern. The food was always freshest and better prepared on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. So those were the only days I ordered from the restaurant. But last night, despite it being Wednesday, I got my SUGARFISH craving and decided to live dangerously. I knew the risk and I accept responsibility for the outcome.

Something obviously was amiss when my usual order wasn’t on the menu.  I ordered the next best thing, and what I thought was extra salmon. When I arrived home, I was taken aback at the food and presentation. It didn’t look as near swimmingly fresh and carefully prepared as usual. And my extra salmon was missing.

SUGARFISH’s off night

SUGARFISH Beverly Hills doesn’t answer their phone, but the restaurant lists an email address. I sent an email expressing my disappointment and asking for a refund on the extra salmon I thought I paid for. To my surprise, I received a prompt response.

I was contacted by a woman named Ashley who was exceptionally polished and articulate. I had sent her a photo of the food, which showed there was no extra salmon. Ashley said there was no extra salmon request on my order and that I wasn’t charged for any. I’m not that tech savvy, so I believed her. Ashley insisted SUGARFISH gets fresh fish every day and it shouldn’t matter on which day I order. She said she would investigate how the order was prepared and asked if she could call me tomorrow (Thursday).

To my surprise, I heard from Ashley just after noon today. She said the restaurant’s kitchen camera revealed that my order was properly prepared, although one of the sushi pieces wasn’t up to snuff. As well, a piece of edamame that was among the fish shouldn’t have been there. The restaurant was issuing me a partial refund.

I was blown away that SUGARFISH has the technology to review how every order is prepared and leaves the restaurant. I also was blown away by how seriously it takes its quality control. Although I’m careful not to tilt my SUGARFISH orders when I pick them up, maybe I was responsible for the less then stellar presentation when I arrived home. My customary order has 12 pieces, so there’s less of an opportunity to move around.

What mattered most was that SUGARFISH cared. And my issue was resolved not with an email from a disengaged person overseas but by an amiable person who clearly had the authority to make things right as she saw fit. Although I still maintain my food wasn’t up to SUGARFISH’s standards, I’m delighted by Ashley’s handling of the matter. If I must endure one substandard order for 51 prepared to perfection, I can live with that. More importantly, SUGARFISH is no longer an impersonal restaurant that I routinely order from. From now on, I’ll associate the restaurant with Ashley.

SUGARFISH retains the coveted Starkman Approved rating. And while I believe the chain gets its fish fresh every day, I’m sticking to my recommendation that it’s best to visit or order to go on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays — at least when dealing with the Beverly Hills location. Ashley will have to agree to disagree with me on this point.

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