Photos by Justin Fox Burks
Reinvented lunchtime favorites such as the chicken and waffle sandwich pictured above shape the menu at Lunchbox Eats.
On a Wednesday afternoon last month, Chef Kaia Brewer was worn out. The owner of Lunchbox Eats on South Fourth Street had catered breakfast and lunch for 260 Memphis police officers and school coaches. She fed them for two days with such hearty fare as beef and mushroom lasagna, mac and cheese, and chess pie, a family recipe tweaked by her mother.
“These are big guys,” Brewer said, laughing. “They eat a lot.”
So will you when an assortment like this arrives to your table on a red school lunch tray: fried chicken, Muenster cheese, honey mustard and green tomato relish sandwiched between two cheddar waffles; avocado wedges, deep fried and happy inside a brown paper bag; fluted cucumber slices pickled in house with ginger and cloves; and a Mason jar of kiwi lemonade served with lavender-color straws that is as pretty as an Easter basket on Sunday morning.
“I’ve always liked to cook crazy things,” Brewer says about her deconstructed menu of lunchtime favorites. ”And I don’t use recipes.”
A Memphis native, Brewer left her job as executive chef at downtown’s DoubleTree hotel in 2010 to open Lunchbox Eats, a charming and eclectic sandwich shop located a short block south of FedEx Forum. Her parents, both career teachers with Memphis City Schools, inspired the restaurant’s school lunch theme.
“I grew up around teachers,” Brewer says, waving her hand toward sets of encyclopedias lined up on the restaurant’s book shelves. “Eighty percent of those books came from my mother’s attic.”
Vintage lunchboxes, a tuba in a travel case, board games like Life and Scrabble, and fat Big Dipper pencils to check off your order continue the restaurant’s school-time nostalgia. So do the names of sandwiches. The Principal’s Office Link sandwiches smoked sausage, fried eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and house sauce into a spicy grilled cheese. The Class Valedictorian is a turkey burger stuffed with Boursin cheese, topped with fresh baby spinach, and stacked between two pieces of buttery cornbread.
And like every good student, be sure to check the chalk board, where a daily list of specials (pickled okra, beet home fries and deep-fried Brussels sprouts) shows off Brewer’s inventive interpretation of everyday cooking. For extra credit, add in dessert. Brewer’s strawberry cake, a multi-layer tower of pink cake and icing, is magical. So is the changing cacophony of bread pudding made with whatever fresh fruit and ingredients are available in-house. Up next: bread pudding made with glazed donuts.
Lunchbox Eats, 288 S. Fourth St. (901) 526-0820
(This story originally appeared in the May issue of Memphis magazine as part of a feature on the Memphis in May celebration.)