Dining Review: Lunchbox Eats goes back to school for creative sandwiches

Lunchbox Eats chef Robert Rutledge with the Homeroom Chicken & Grids, the restaurant's version of chicken and waffles, along with side orders of sweet hash and macaroni and cheese.

Photo by Dave Darnell // Buy this photo

Lunchbox Eats chef Robert Rutledge with the Homeroom Chicken & Grids, the restaurant's version of chicken and waffles, along with side orders of sweet hash and macaroni and cheese.

Lunchbox Eats, a block south of FedExForum on Fourth Street, is not the place for careful counters of calories. It is a great spot for diners who can abandon their cares as they devour bread, cheese, eggs, waffles, gravy and butter with their smoked pork and poultry.

And we did, sampling five of the nine sandwiches on the current Lunchbox menu, plus a few sides, banana pudding and some chocolate cake.

Lunchbox Eats owner Kaia Brewer with the Uniform Catfish Code, smoked catfish salad with slices of boiled eggs, Tabasco onions, tomatoes and greens on  white bread.

Photo by Dave Darnell

Lunchbox Eats owner Kaia Brewer with the Uniform Catfish Code, smoked catfish salad with slices of boiled eggs, Tabasco onions, tomatoes and greens on white bread.

The Graduation Burger at Lunchbox Eats combines a slice of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and crispy Tabasco onions.

Photo by Dave Darnell

The Graduation Burger at Lunchbox Eats combines a slice of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and crispy Tabasco onions.

Lunchbox owner Kaia Brewer, who previously worked as a hotel executive chef and attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, N.C., says the restaurant makes everything from bread to desserts in house, and she keeps the smoker out back stoked for the

catfish, turkey, duck, chicken and pork she serves on her sandwiches.

Brewer opened the restaurant Sept. 1 in a sturdy and nicely refurbished 1940s-era building with walls of exposed brick and plaster and a painted concrete floor.

The first thing you'll notice is the school-days theme: There are long tables, molded plastic chairs, menus on lined paper with holes punched in the left margin. Meals are delivered on divided plastic trays, with wooden forks and knives. (People at my table asked for metal; the wooden utensils, though they appear to be made of a high-grade, balsa-like wood, made us nervous. Maybe we remembered getting splinters from schoolyard swings and bats.)

Titles of dishes flirt with the theme as well. My favorite was the "Uniform Catfish Code," a liberal portion of creamy smoked catfish salad -- chunky white morsels of fish with spicy fried onion strips, boiled egg slices, tomatoes, greens and capers. The ingredients harmonize beautifully between two massive slices of white bread.

Another sandwich in which everything came together perfectly was the "3rd Period Smoking Birds" -- spicy turkey, sweet chicken and savory duck with a pleasing green tomato relish, on massive slices of wheat bread this time.

The "Extra Curricula Portabella" sandwich was a giant smoked mushroom stuffed with an equally giant serving of vegetables, but the menu promised it would be served in puff pastry, and it arrived instead capped with a crisp flatbread. Maybe someone in the kitchen was experimenting with the formula.

The vegetables here are imaginative: The "veggie slaw" was a unique, sweet-and-spicy conglomeration of greens, cabbage and red pepper. The "sweet hash" was an interesting combination of sauteed sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas, cautiously cooked to remain firm. And the Lunchbox mac-and-cheese is so good, the chef won't tell what's in it. You can see the jalapeños in the dish; I'm guessing there's also hot sauce.

The "Leadership Mac & Pork Club" is an over-the-top dose of carbohydrates. The peppery macaroni-and- cheese and smoked pork butt are layered on three slices of buttered and toasted white bread. My friend who got this sandwich said, "It's kind of weird to eat pork without barbecue sauce." I assured him it's done freely in other parts of the country.

After lunch one day, we had the Lunchbox banana pudding, which is fairly standard, as well as the super-rich and spongy Hershey chocolate cake. The server asked if we wanted a scoop of vanilla ice cream with the cake, and we told her to bring it on. Obviously, none of us was counting.

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LUNCHBOX Eats

Food:

Service:

Atmosphere:

Address: 288 S. Fourth.

Telephone: (901) 526-0820.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Also open during basketball games at FedExForum.

Reviewer's choices: Uniform Catfish Code, $6.95; 3rd Period Smoking Birds, $7.95; sweet hash, $1.99; macaroni and cheese, $2.29.

Alcohol: No alcohol.

Star Ratings

Poor: Zero stars

Good: One star

Very Good: Two stars

Excellent: Three stars

Extraordinary: Four stars

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