Sunday, January 29, 2012

Latest Street Food Trend – The Box Lunch

Dear Zany and Mad,

I know you think that – having relocated to Chicago – you are now feasting on the cutting edge of all food trends, with a healthy serving of bacon on the side. After all, it is a commonly held assumption that most food trends get an out-of-town try out before making their New York debut.

But, this time I think I’m (finally) one step ahead of you, and I’m pretty proud of myself. Here’s something I predict street foodaddicts will be buzzing about. Food trucks are passé. Wheels are out. The “box lunch” is in. Let me explain.

It is the first workday of the year. For me. Manhattan is noticeably empty because most people get this day off, and they’re still at home nursing their New Year’s hangover. I’m trying not to feel bitter. As I walk through Times Square, a sorry-looking sprinkle of leftover confetti blows past me. I’m about to head uptown when something catches my eye. I glance to my right and I’m about to forge on. I look again. What is it? Should I stop and investigate? I feel a slight pang of hunger in my stomach wrestling with my worker bee sense of duty, which is urging me to get to the office on time.

My stomach wins the argument. “Check it out,” my stomach urges me. “Work can wait. Zany would never forgive you for ignoring this.”

The sight that stirs my stomach and weary soul is, quite simply, a box. Or, more accurately, a large shipping container dropped on the Broadway pedestrian mall, with a savory sign screaming “Empanadas.” It’s just like one of those pods that people are now parking on their lawns in the suburbs to store all their extra junk, but a lot tastier.

The box is the home of Nuchas Inspired Hand-Held Foods. I rap on the window and a young man inside slides it open.

“Where did you come from?” I demand, sounding like I’ve just stumbled upon manna from heaven. He gives me a funny look, but politely explains that the Nuchas “box” normally resides at Broadway Plaza between 44th and 45th Street. It was moved to this location temporarily to make room for the New Years Eve celebration in Times Square.

“We’ll be back at our usual location tomorrow,” he explains.

“But how?” I ask. “You have no wheels.”

He raises one eyebrow, perhaps wondering if I am possessed of all my faculties. “We use a fork lift,” he explains slowly and emphatically, as if I am a two-year-old. “It just scoops it up and moves it.”

At this point I am madly craving an empanada, but it is not yet 8:15 AM, so I must settle for the morning menu. I order a coffee and a “Medialuna,” an Argentine sweet croissant, and head over to the atrium next to the Stephen Sondheim Theater for breakfast. The coffee is strong and invigorating, and the rich, flaky medialuna, has a warm, sweet, sticky glaze that makes me smile. In case you are wondering, “medialuna” means “half moon.”

I resolve to return that day for an empanada lunch, but circumstances (and free pizza in the office) prevent me. So, the next day I venture out at lunchtime into Times Square. It is bitterly cold. Even George M. Cohan is shivering.

Through the magic of a fork lift, Nuchas has reappeared at its traditional location. I rap on the window, which at the moment is tightly closed to seal in the warmth and all those arresting empanada aromas. The menu offers a choice of Meat Empanadas and Veggie Empanadas. This time, I hear the voice of Mad Me-Shell reverberating through Times Square – “Skip the Veggies – go for the Meat!”

I am about to order all four options, but a hand written note on the menu tells me the Pulled Pork Empanada are sold out. Bummer! So I order the “Argentine,” the “Short Rib” and the “Spicy Chicken” - certainly enough of a protein fix to get me through the afternoon.

I snatch the warm bag of empanadas and power walk back to the office, nearly knocking over a couple of tourists who get in my way. Speed is of the essence. I don’t want the little hot pockets to get chilly!

I am successful, and a little blast of steam escapes as I open the bag.

The Argentine is a white dough empanada, stuffed with ground beef, onions, peppers, scallions, potatoes and olives. I like the mix of spice, heat and brine. The Short Rib filling is slow braised in red wine, with onions, peppers, potatoes and fresh herbs wrapped with rosemary dough. The Spicy Chicken empanada has a nice kick, with a filling of chipotle, tomatoes, onions, peppers and fresh basil, wrapped in paprika dough. The little hand-held pastries are melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and they’ve got that cute little braided edge which is a nice touch.

Yes, Mad, I DO need to go back for the Pulled Pork empanada. It’s at the top of my list. I'll do it for you. Meantime, I’ve become a bit obsessed with the box lunch phenomenon. Sure, the concept lacks a certain mobility, but there’s a sense of stability inherent in a semi-permanent location.

I know there are more box lunches out there, waiting for me on the streets of Manhattan. And, I WILL find them.

Yours in street meat,


©2012 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Kathy said...

Love empanadas! Other than meat, I've only tried pumpkin. I haven't seen any of those boxes here in Houston yet; I'll have to keep an eye out. I have seen more and more of the taco trucks without wheels (just set up on blocks), so maybe this is the next step. Thanks for a yummy post!

Alex Rogers said...

Tom, I'm so excited to try these! Great post, by the way.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

When I saw the heading "box lunch", this wasn't what I envisioned. But what a great idea. The City must sanction them, as they aren't all that easy to move around, so once you find one, it's likely to be in the same place for a while. Great find!

Gloria said...

Love empanadas dear Thomas and in my blog I have six empanadas recipes (seafood, meat, prawns. cheese, prawns and cheese)lol and yesterday I was thinking and make others! We have similar with Argentina but we dont add potatoes, so the meat empanadas have beef meat chopped, olives,chopped onions, cummin, and others) The people here love to eat in Sundays but normally they bought, but I lov eto make them, nice post!!!

We make toosweet empanadas like with apples or pears:)

Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

A forklift - what a great idea and so is the box lunch. I haven't had a really good empanada since we lived in Texas way back when.

I hope the girls are jealous, but it sounded like a bit of a challenge. Wonder what they'll come up with as a retort?

Zany said...

I'm skeptical. Luigi and I are having a rigorous debate over this culinary concept as we eat our blueberry pancakes. Luigi has concluded that this is nothing but "a glorified snack bar" and can't possibly catch on as a trend. I'm going to have to agree - mostly because I can't imagine anyone would allow Mad to drive around with a forklift trying to relocate our food box every now and then.

Retort you ask? Four words - "beer and bacon tasting" in late February. What better way to seek warmth in the depths of a Chicago winter?!

Fresh Local and Best said...

It sounds like EVERYTHING that Nuchas offers is a must try. From the media luna, which has an impressive volume of flaky layers to it to the variety of empanadas. I happen to love these savory pockets of goodness. Hopefully it won't be too long before I can try these. What a great food truck to have in midtown!

Kalyn said...

Very fun! There are food trucks and carts galore in Utah, but I've never seen anything like this.

Mad Me-Shell said...

As I write this, I'm wiping a tear from my eye. Triple meat, T.W.? I'm so proud!! And let's be honest -- any kind of food that involves a forklift is a winner in my book. I can't wait to try the next time I'm in town!

Ford M said...

I don't know. I am not sure it qualifies as a box lunch unless the box is edible. But, I suppose, if the vendor decide he/she doesn't like NYC anymore, they can ship themselves to some other city pretty easily.

CulinaryCache said...

Empanadas are delicious, and these look (and sound) amazing.

Just came across your blog today and looking forward to following.

Maris (in Good Taste) said...

I can't wait to try these. I was thinking of something so different when I saw box lunch!

Kat said...

I love it! The Box Lunch, how neat. They look delicious, those empanadas. I have never had one (I know, I am sheltered.) I love reading about all your food adventures.

Sophiesfoodiefiles said...

Thanks for a great review on this box shop!

The empanadas look incrdibly tasty & lovely filling too! :)

Lucky you! :)

Barbara said...

Mad and Zany would be proud of you! And I love the story of the (traveling) "box"! Hand pies of all kinds are my favorite (someone gave me a book called Cutie Pies for Christmas) but I must say, that Medialuna has all my attention. OMG.

Catherine said...

Dear T.W.~You are adventurous!! The most I have bought from a street vendor is a hot-dog and pretzel!!
These do sound delish!! I am glad you enjoyed them. Actually, I can hear the excitement in reading this post! It is always fun when you find something good.
Blessings for a beautiful day.
Your Fellow Islander,

Mary said...

What fun. It took a minute for me to register that you weren't talking picnic box lunches, but once I was on board, I was with you all the way. The empanadas sound delicious and add another option to your already substantial lunch options. I'm frankly envious. Have a great day. Blessings...Mary

Velva said...

An even better concept...A pod!! Amazing.

I do love empanadas. I grew up eating a variety of them in South Florida. I know they are hearty and really tasty.


Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

I can't wait to take a trip to New York and look for lunch boxes. Your description of the empanadas has made me so hungry and it's hours away from dinner.

lostpastremembered said...

I know I'm bad but I always steer clear of midtown unless I absolutely must be there. See what I miss. Great little trend, these container stores. Sounds like they are working magic there with their little storefront and that may be enough to get me to visit again!!

Matthew said...

So, I had seen this pop up box shop the week after Christmas as I took the family through the city. At teh time, preparations were underway for New Year's Eve festivities and the shop was just south of the Times Square Armed Forces Recruiting Station. After talking to a colleague at work yesterday about Hot Pockets, I sent her your post about these empanadas. So, today three of us, headed uptown from 34th Street for some empanadas nuchas-style. I had one each of the Argentine, Chicken and Braised Beef. We were not disappointed!

I know I've seen another of these container shops on my city wanderings but I can't remember where exactly. Maybe the Flat-Iron district near Eataly. I'll retrace my steps (literally) and report back.

Did you know it was Pancake Month and Clinton Street Bakery is celebrating. I'm thinking a field trip is in order!