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