If you google the phrase "box lunch history," virtually all the results are for lunch boxes and the fascinating history thereof. (Check out the Smithsonian's photo op of June Lockhart putting a Lost in Space lunchbox into a display at the Museum of American History -- I love how the curators made her wear white gloves to keep the lunchbox mint.)
But while a lunch box contains food from home, an American-style box lunch contains restaurant food that mimics the contents of a lunch box: typically some variation on a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a cookie. It's a strange sort of duality, and if you're looking for extra credit, I bet there's an American Studies thesis in there somewhere. (For present purposes, I consider Japanese-style bento boxes a separate entity. In fact, that's a great idea for a future food fight...)
Takeout food dates back to the earliest civilization, as Andrew F. Smith notes in the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, adding that "[r]oadside stands and food stalls in busy urban markets were commonplace in ancient Greece and Rome." I bet those hawkers loved it when Russell Crowe was playing the Colosseum! The modern box lunch is rather more genteel, but also less interesting, as it has evolved into a form of cheap, lowest common denominator catering for meetings, conventions, and other large agglomerations of professionals.
I've attended more than a few such events myself, and while I can't deny the small jolt of excitement right before I open up a box lunch -- you never really know what's inside -- I am inevitably disappointed. But does it have to be that way? Today's contenders, Picnic and Le Mistral, would have you believe otherwise.
To the judging!
Picnic (sandwich, chips, cookie, and fruit cup for $8.50)
Picnic is the sort of place you want to love. It's casual, unpretentious, and welcoming, with a nice mix of regulars, ladies who lunch, and families. The bread and cookies are all homemade. The house specialty is box lunches and other picnicky comestibles, and the website even has a map of picnic spots in Houston. I just wish its food was better.
I took the counterwoman's suggestion and ordered one of the most popular sandwiches, the chicken salad. It was dead boring, all texture and no flavor. I knew from the description I was eating poached chicken with basil mayonnaise, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, and celery, but I couldn't pick out a single flavor. And the otherwise well-made sourdough bread wasn't the least bit sour. The fruit cup of mint-flecked grapes and unripe cantaloupe was small and disappointing. The saving grace was dessert, an addictive cakey brownie in drop cookie form called a "chocolate chewie with pecans."
Maybe I visited on a bad day, but if the chicken salad is a top seller then that's probably the way it is made. The box lunch is otherwise a decent deal (it also includes a bag of chips, a quarter-pickle, and a Starlight mint), and I may give Picnic another shot and try a different sandwich, if for no other reason than to have another cookie. Or maybe I'll go back just for dessert.
Le Mistral (sandwich and soup for $9)
If there's a more underrated restaurant in Houston than Le Mistral, I'd like to know about it. Sure, it's on the far edge of the Energy Corridor, but Bootsie's is in freaking Tomball and gets 20 times the press. Not that Le Mistral is hurting for business; at 11:30 a.m. in the middle of the week, professionals were streaming in, about 90 percent wearing dark sport coats over unbuttoned oxfords. Is that the unofficial uniform of midlevel petroleum execs?
The box lunch offers a choice of three sandwiches (versus Picnic's ten) and either soup or salad. I had the chicken panini, a sandwichy take on a caprese salad, and it was everything that Picnic's sandwich was not. Every bite held a profusion of flavors: grilled chicken sliced thin, juicy tomatoes, basil aioli and melted mozzarella. It sounds simple and it was. Simple, well-crafted, and delicious.
I paired my sandwich with the cream tomato soup, a generous pour (in restaurant parlance, much closer to a bowl than a cup) of a thick, rich, ochre-colored broth, with a dab of pesto coulis. It's an immensely satisfying soup, with fantastic roasted flavor and a richness that comes less from butterfat than from meat stock.
As at Picnic, the people at Le Mistral were unfailingly pleasant, even though I was more than a little underdressed in shorts and a T-shirt when I picked up my order. Executive Chef David Denis even brought my lunch out personally, apparently to apologize that the sandwich didn't include a dessert. Qu'est-ce qu'on peut faire? If I wanted a dessert, I should have upgraded to the three-course box lunch, with standard entrees instead of sandwiches, which at $12 might be the best deal in town. But to keep the fight honest, I stayed with sandwiches.
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Le Mistral, and the only reason it's remotely close is because Picnic's cookies are so good and Le Mistral's sandwich box lunch doesn't include dessert. I like dessert. Priced aggressively at $9, Le Mistral's box lunch is also a fantastic bargain. If I worked in the Energy Corridor this place would be on speed dial.
Two caveats. First, to order a box lunch from Le Mistral you need to call 24 hours in advance. (You can try to order it the same day, but your chance of success depends on what else Chef Denis has going on.) Second, if you want delivery, you'll need to order at least ten lunches, but if you're willing to pick up at the restaurant you can order any amount.