In the photo, chef Alex Sáenz sits on a stool on the sidewalk in front of Cambridge restaurant BISq. There’s a wineglass in his hand, and another on the overturned milk crate at his feet. He is wearing a mask and holding an open umbrella. Sáenz posted the image on Instagram on a rainy afternoon the week Massachusetts reopened for outdoor dining.
“Phase 2: Patios only. We don’t even have one, few do. This is far from over & second waves could crush us,” he wrote in the caption. “Keep supporting your neighborhood & all your favorite places.”
The image sums up so much: The poignant mood of the moment. The push-pull of the hospitality business at a time when the very forces that animate it — closeness, connection, personal touch — feel risky. The fact that takeout, sales of pantry items, outdoor dining, and, as of this week, indoor service at reduced capacity don’t add up to business as was formerly usual. And the fear that restaurants that have pirouetted to takeout could now be left in the dust if they don’t have patios and aren’t ready to reopen their dining rooms.
“So many people want to sit outside. I do, too,” Sáenz says. “But for me it was just letting people know: We don’t have a patio. Don’t forget about us.”
Customers shouldn’t. BISq has done an uncommonly good job with what Sáenz says the restaurant has always focused on: giving people what they want, and what they need. “One of our assets here is our neighborhood,” he says. “It’s very supportive, kind, and loving. We try to showcase that back to them.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Sáenz and owner Servio Garcia thought maybe BISq could become a kind of local grocery, connecting consumers to ingredients from the farmers, fishermen, and other purveyors with whom the restaurant works. But they worried they'd take a loss on inventory. Instead, after a period of strict quarantine, as people were starting to weary of making their own bread and pasta 24/7, they decided to start offering prepared meals. They began with a dish that has always drawn people to BISq: fried chicken.
Sáenz grew up in South Carolina, and his fried chicken doesn’t taste like it’s from around here. It’s craggy and crispy and juicy and well seasoned. He makes it with boneless thighs, which removes the joy of gnawing but replaces it with the sheer, uninterrupted pleasure of gobbling chicken tenders. It’s the best of all fried-chicken worlds, and it comes with dipping sauces like makrut lime green goddess, buttermilk ranch, and honey mustard. A takeout four-piece fried chicken dinner is $35, including a few sides — recently, cheesy Anson Mills grits and an excellent succotash. When BISq’s dining room is open, ordering the chicken with something fancy from the wine list is a true pleasure. You can still take home a bottle: I like a rose or a sparkler with this.
Fried chicken got BISq restarted. Since mid-April, the takeout menu has grown to include racks of ribs slathered in barbecue sauce, adobo, or stupendously flavorful green chermoula, along with whole roast chickens. BISq Meats & Sandwiches, a sister operation in Fenway’s TimeOut Market, is currently closed, along with another Garcia-Sáenz collaboration, Taqueria El Barrio near BU. But sandwiches have become a big part of the Cambridge restaurant’s operation. You can get one with that fried chicken, plus kimchi and the buttermilk ranch. There’s also house-made mozzarella with smashed peas, pulled pork, a BLT with fried green tomatoes (the B stands for bologna: surprise!), and a shrimp burger with sea-urchin mayonnaise. Be sure to order some togarashi-dill potato chips on the side. They’re so good I ate half on my drive home.
The sandwiches have been what people are most excited about, Sáenz says. He’s been adding a new one to the roster each week. They work well for BISq because they’re easily tailored for vegetarians and pescatarians, and they’re ideal for takeout. “When I think of food, I’m thinking about the flavor but also about how it travels,” Sáenz says. “How does it get home to you that you’re still excited and like, ‘Man, that was really worth it.’”
When I open the container with my shrimp burger, I find the burger itself swaddled in plastic wrap, shredded lettuce in its own container, a toasted bun, and a little dish of dressing. I quickly assemble it myself and it’s perfect: lettuce crisp, bun not soggy. As for the fried chicken, if you can manage not to eat it all at once, it’s almost better cold the next day for lunch.
There’s also a list of house-made provisions, designed to complement all that bread we were baking: ricotta, pimento cheese, chow chow cream cheese, hummus. Standard peanut butter and jelly is good and all, but the pistachio butter and peach jelly sandwiches I’ve been making with supplies from BISq are on another level. There are also logs of cookie dough and cocktail mixers: strawberry-rhubarb, bergamot-rooibos, honey-ginger. The delight of BISq takeout lies partly in the mix of useful, delicious offerings and fun surprises.
“This is the craziest thing any of us has ever been through. It’s a roller coaster of emotions,” Sáenz says.
But maybe some good can come of it somehow. Customers place their orders by phone after noon from Tuesday through Saturday, claiming a time slot for pickup. There’s no guesswork about what supplies the restaurant is going to need. The stress of service is removed. The schedule is saner and more relaxed. Everyone is home by 7. “I think this has opened up a lot of our eyes,” Sáenz says. “We’ve been doing the same thing for so long. That’s just what you do. But we don’t have to. We can do something different. . . . We’ve got to find a little more balance.”
Before COVID-19, BISq was just the sort of independent restaurant you wanted in your neighborhood, serving unpretentious yet creative food and drink in a welcoming, convivial atmosphere. Garcia is one of the warmest presences in the business, greeting everyone, hugging the regulars. Some of the particulars of this model aren’t viable right now. But the spirit of the enterprise hasn’t changed. The fried chicken hasn’t either. BISq may not have a patio, but it still offers plenty we don’t want to lose.
1071 Cambridge St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-714-3693, www.bisqcambridge.com. Sandwiches $12-$23, dinners $20-$52, provisions $4-$12, wine $20-$36 per bottle. For the most current menu and ordering information, find chef Alex Sáenz @saenzin on Instagram.