Lunchbox Eats - Quirky Memphis Eatery Evokes Elementary School

The scene: It turns out you can go back again — back to school. Quirky Lunchbox Eats in Memphis has a schoolhouse theme, as evoked in its name. The parking lot sports a basketball hoop and mural on the brick wall. After entering what feels like an old one-room schoolhouse, you are greeted with a sign that says “For an A, Please Seat Yourself.” Lunchbox EatsThe stainless steel tables are accessorized with mismatched old elementary school seats — some swivel, some are colored plastic, many are very low. The menu is in a three-hole punched college-ruled notebook, and you place your order by filling out cards at the tables. There are plenty of chalkboards of course — and chalkboard specials — and sandwiches have names like the “School Bully Crawfish Sloppy Joe” and “Honor Roll Burrito.” There are old filing cabinets about, exposed and well-worn brick walls covered with sports posters, some random giant letters on the wall and an old school clock — as well as a large projection TV playing sports.

Despite the theme, Lunchbox Eats is not kitschy, and is more cozy than anything. The menu skews toward soul food, and there is beer and an outside front garden patio, two things typically missing at actual schools. With a huge slate of board games laid out for diners' use, and the TV and beer, it’s an odd combination of family lunch spot and sports bar, and it is only open for lunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is located a block or two off a main drag, so you need to seek it out, yet it is convenient to the FedEx Forum, the National Civil Rights Museum and downtown Memphis.

Reason to visit: Sandwiches, especially crawfish etouffee sliders and pulled pork mac and cheese, specialty lemonades

The food:  The menu is focused on sandwiches, but they are creative and filling sandwiches you won’t find elsewhere. For instance the School Bully Crawfish Sloppy Joe is actually a trio of crawfish etouffee sliders served on mini hot dog buns, which look and taste fantastic. Almost all the sandwiches have a Southern slant, and there’s the Homeroom Chicken and Grids, not grits, which is their take on the classic chicken and waffles, a big fried chicken strip sandwich served between homemade waffles with oddly successful muenster cheese and choice of condiments like green tomato relish and honey mustard.

The choices are endless and varied and all sound good, but if there is one signature it is the daunting Mac & Pork Club, a three-layer club-style sandwich that fits slow-smoked pulled pork butt — this is Memphis after all — and mac and cheese between three slabs of thick home-style bread with lots of cheese. It’s big, it’s crazy, but it tastes great, with high-quality chunky pulled pork and excellent house-made barbecue sauce. There is also a similar Broken Rib Bones sandwich using the meat of braised beef short ribs. The other sandwiches we tried were all well above average, the waffles were standouts and the mini hot dog rolls were especially tasty. Daily specials tend to be more entrée-focused, but still have Southern flair. When I visited they included a deep-fried Cornish game hen and softshell crab.

One highlight of Lunchbox Eats is the huge and eclectic array of sides, again checked off on the cards you use to place your order. These include cole slaw, fries, dill pickles, sweet potato hash, corn on the cob, macand cheese, baked squash, kale chips, chickpea crunch, eggplant fries, deep-fried Brussels sprouts and Jo Jos, usually fried potato wedges but here made from avocado. You can make any sandwich on the menu into a “Lunchbox” by adding chips instead of a side. The food is served on plastic school cafeteria trays — of course — and the fries and similar items come in overflowing brown paper bags. The eggplant fries were a cool concept with great seasoning, but were oily and flabby inside. The best of the many sides I tried ended up being the regular French fries, an exceptional take on the thicker hand-cut style, with  a crunchy and heavily seasoned exterior.

The food is very good, portions large, and prices quite reasonable, but because everything is made to order, it can take a long time for food to come out. One other notable thing about the place is their non-alcoholic drink selection. The sweet tea is freshly made and really good, and they offer a changing daily slate of fresh-squeezed flavored lemonades, both served in mason jars. Lemonade choices might include flavors like blueberry, mango, prickly pear, banana or honeydew, and these are excellent, a favorite of regulars.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but a nice break from ribs.

Rating: Yum!  (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 288 South Fourth Street, Memphis; 901-526-0820

Tell us about your favorite home cooked, store bought, or restaurant that evokes your childhood lunch or lunchbox by Contacting Us or leaving a comment below. Original article by Larry Olmsted appears on USA Today.

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