Seven years ago, Lisa Clay Getske founded Lisa's Lunchbox, a sandwich joint, inside an office tower near Poplar and I-240. You can't see it from the street, and in anybody else's hands, it would have gone out of business in six months.
But not Lisa's Lunchbox. There's a line out the door every day, and Getske has just opened a second location on Poplar, next to Casablanca. What's her secret?
"Well," reflects Getske, "I guess for starters, we only use real food. I remember, when I first opened, my food purveyor tried to sell me some pre-cooked chicken with grill marks on it. I was like, No thank you."
It's difficult to describe what makes Lisa's Lunchbox work so well. Is it the menu, handwritten on colorful pieces of construction paper taped to the wall? Or is it the crunchy, oven-baked bacon, deployed in dishes like the chicken club wrap ($7.32) and the potato soup ($3.20)?
What's easier to pin down is consistent quality — and freshness — of the fare. Just about everything, from the humble ranch dressing to the mighty chicken breast, is prepared onsite, every day.
The new Lisa's Lunchbox was a smoothie bar before Getske leased the space. From the former tenants she inherited some very colorful walls — the color of mango sorbet — but also a unique opportunity: she got to buy their appliances.
That has led to a tasty innovation: They now offer a full line of smoothies and juices. Start off with a couple of ginger shots ($2.50). (In case you hadn't heard, ginger is the new wheatgrass.) Faintly sweet and intensely spicy, it will heat you up and change your mood.
From there, graduate to a Memphis Mango smoothie ($4), a delicious slurry of mango, banana, cashews, vanilla, almond milk, and — if you ask for it — spinach and kale. Sweet but not too sweet, it'll help you stay cool in the sticky weather.
"The last tenants," remembers Getske, "put ice cream in all their smoothies. We're trying to steer people toward real food and show them it can be just as delicious."
No one can appreciate comfort food quite like a server. The Blind Bear was founded in 2011 by three bartenders. So it makes sense that when, earlier this month, they started serving lunch again, they went for the kind of food they themselves would want to eat: comfort food classics like fried okra ($3) and barbecued bologna ($12).
"Downtown has a lot of expensive, nice food," says co-founder Jeanette West. "But we also know that people work here. They want veggies, they want options, but they don't want to spend their whole paycheck on a meal."
For lunch, try the pepper jack mac & cheese ($3), which is faintly spicy, or the collard greens ($3), which are satisfyingly crisp. Chef Jeremy "JJ" Jaggers knows that many of his clientele don't eat meat, so all sides are 100-percent vegetarian.
For me, it's all about the Gangster Philly ($12). When developing the recipe, chef Jaggers went back to the source: Pat's King of Steaks in Philadelphia, PA.
Jaggers starts with a rib-eye steak, which he slow-roasts to medium rare. Next, he slices the meat and finishes it on a flat-top griddle, before serving it with sauteed peppers and onions in a crusty Italian roll. But the sine qua non of this dish is the provolone béchamel sauce, a cheesy delight that will be waiting for me when I get to heaven.
"I'm a meat-eating chef," confesses Jaggers. "So when I sit down for lunch, I want meat and cheese and bread. And I want the cheese to be nice and gooey and melty."