“It’s like Costco on steroids,” whispers photographer Patricia Chang, eyes wide behind her mask. We’re standing at the cavernous entrance of a warehouse, next to some oversized bags of onions that look like they could feed ogres. Welcome to Restaurant Depot, the Bayview location of the wholesale warehouse. The place “where restaurants shop” is normally only open to card-carrying chefs. But given the pandemic, wholesalers have been opening their doors to everyday eaters, offering up a big shopping opportunity.
“What’s up,” says Gil Payumo from Señor Sisig with an elbow bump. The chef is a Bay Area native and longtime Restaurant Depot regular, and our host and shopping guide for today. For those new to the somewhat overwhelming experience, he’s got some hot tips for what to grab for yourself, your partner, your parents, whatever: “Don’t be intimidated. Always ask questions. People are friendly… but it’s good to have someone you know to give you pointers. You could get lost in there.”
What to know before you go: It’s cash or debit only. Check in at the front to get a temporary pass. Yeah, you do want that big rolling cart — even if you’re only grabbing one or two items, they won’t be light. And go in the afternoon, when the lines are shorter and the chefs have already hustled back to their restaurants. Important note: Please be considerate to industry professionals. This might be a fun shopping trip for you, but it is in fact a resource for them, and they’re already stressed these days. So step out of their way and let them get to work before snagging some steak.
Got it? Let’s roll.
Massive rib eye steak
First stop: steak. Payumo says that 16 pounds of rib eye for $122 would normally be an epic option for backyard barbecues, but even if it’s not possible to gather with your friends right now, you can still freeze the meat. “When you’re buying in bulk, you get a dollar or two difference, and when you’re buying per pound, that does make a significant change in your pocket.” He throws it into a dry-aging bag and sticks it in the fridge for 30 days to really let that flavor and texture deepen. And he saves the trimmings, putting them into carne asada tacos.
Oversized cans of crab
Next, step right up to the fish counter. Sadly, those bags of oysters are off limits; Restaurant Depot still won’t sell live shellfish to regular people. (Or alcohol — sorry, party people.) But Payumo recommends yellowfin tuna for poke, or canned Dungeness crab, in 1- or 5-pound cans, ready to crack open for classic crab melts. He recently rolled it into a lumpia special at the restaurant, with sweet corn, a kick of chile, and lime, fried in a crispy wrapper and dunked in a sweet-sour sauce. “You don’t have to buy your Dungeness crab, boil it, crack it, pick out the meat, and sort through all these specks of shell. It’s all done for you.”
Big-ass bags of fresh basil
At regular grocery stores, herbs might be one of the most marked-up items. But Restaurant Depot actually sells herbs by the spinach-sized bag. Payumo says it’s a great value for batching and freezing summer pesto. “If you go to any other supermarket, you’re going to be dealing with little packs of basil, with a total of eight leaves, maybe enough for a caprese or garnish. But if you want really good fresh pesto, you want a lot of basil.”
Frozen fruit for daily smoothies
For all those who have reached the stage of quarantine where they are swinging back to healthy habits, roll down the freezer aisle. “You have to have freezer space. You’re getting a box,” Payumo warns. “But if you’re an avid smoothie person, who has it every morning, this is the way to go. Get a case of blueberries and a case of strawberries, and add whatever you want to it.”
All-purpose flour for prolific bakers
Payumo personally likes to pick up a 50-pound bag of flour for his own family, helping his wife fill up one big container, before dropping off the rest with his parents. “This whole pandemic, there’s been a shortage of baking needs, because everyone’s been baking sourdough, cookies, muffins,” he says. “The stores have been sold out. But Restaurant Depot has pallets and pallets of all-purpose flour, sugar, all the stuff you need.” He also points out the chocolate, nuts, and spices — those expensive ingredients that get better value at wholesale.
Never-ending dried pasta and beans
Of course, dried goods are the go-to for buying in bulk. Restaurant Depot’s house brand is called “Chef’s Quality,” and is it good quality? “Probably half of the restaurants in San Francisco are using this brand, if they’re not hand-making their own pasta,” Payumo says. “It’s just basic pasta, nothing too fancy about it.” For busy parents who are doing double duty as lunch cooks these days, he recommends a case of elbow macaroni for folding into mac and cheese, or bowties for chicken noodle soup.
Industrial-strength plastic wrap
This writer was pumped to get to the tools section, because regular plastic wrap is the worst, and restaurant plastic wrap is the best. No flimsy tubes! No pathetic plastic teeth! No more wrestling and swearing in the kitchen! Restaurant plastic wrap comes in a big sturdy box for setting on the counter, with a real blade that cuts smooth. “You’re getting restaurant quality, meaning industrial plastic,” Payumo says. “And it will last you the whole year.”
Storage containers for pantry organization
Never least, for all those coping with quarantine cabin fever by reorganizing the pantry — oh, you have come to the right place. Payumo points out the Cambro storage containers, in sturdy plastic with snap-top lids, built square for tidy stacking. He sees two benefits to better storage: First of all, stocking up means you won’t have to go shopping every other day, something we should all be trying to avoid. Second, it just makes your home kitchen more functional and pleasant to cook in.
“Especially living in San Francisco, people don’t have a lot of space,” the chef says. “But what can you do with the space you have? Be a little more organized. So your family’s not running around and looking for stuff. Get everything set in place. Work with what you have.”