Lunchbox Laboratory Love

I'm officially in love...with a burger joint.

True, I tend to be a bit giddy about these things, and I'll make no apologies here. From truck stop patty melts to the foie gras & truffle variety, I love a good burger. And yes, if you ever find yourself outside the bus station in Cancun, Mexico, I can attest, there's a street vendor with a burger so fine, he'll make your mama weep. But here in Seattle, we are blessed with Scott Simpson's brainchild, Lunchbox Laboratory. Bar none, THIS is the best burger I've ever had.

So I'm saying it loud and proud: I'm in love.

At present, Lunchbox Laboratory is in a spot so tiny, it makes a street food trailer seem spacious. But, oh, what comes out of that 400 square foot space!

Seating, as you can guess, is at a premium. On good weather days, the lines...and temporary picnic tables spill out to the street.

For well over a year, there's been talk of a larger space. Lacking any specific details, Scott would tell me, coyly, "One spot we're looking at is 2 miles away; the other is 5 miles from here." Like two negotiation-weary warriors, we'd exchange knowing looks and he'd drift off, "You know how that goes..."

The latest news? The investor...and dreams of an expanded space...fell through. Details captured on their website:

"Many of you have heard we had an investor and former friend who would carry us to the promised land. Unfortunately he dropped us via email on news year eve very unceremoniously at the last moment. It put us on the brink of death but the Lunchbox and its family will fight to the death to keep a dream alive. We are happy to say we have signed a NEW one year lease here so please stop in often so we can all work for the ultimate laboratory."

With no move in the foreseeable future, there's no holding back.

Lunchbox Laboratory: GO!

A new lease. Same great burgers. And an expanded menu that may--or may not--include housemade Twinkies, served alongside Scott's legendary shakes. What more do you want?

At Lunchbox Laboratory, Scott's creative musings are immediately apparent. The counter does double duty, showcasing his ever-expanding lunchbox collection. Nostalgic memorabilia line the walls, and the tables inside are draped in black velvet, topped with glass.

But your first and most important a mind-boggling number of choices. Yes, you can build your own burger, but why bother? The daily specials include a delectable line up.

Strategy is in order here:

1. Bring a friend, or two, or three.

2. Order the combo. $15 gets you a burger (your choice) and a side. (Tater tots and sweet potato fries are my favorites.)

3. Burger choices are kid-at-Christmas kind of tough. Strength in numbers is key -- order a couple burgers and plan on sharing. (Anything with the dork--a la Duck + Pork should factor heavily in your plans.)

4. Drinks? Roadblock! Real Mexican Coke or a handmade shake? This is where dining with friends is in order. I say, divide and conquer: get both!

5. Grab a massive stack of napkins, and try, if you can, to control your anticipation.

Dork (duck + pork) patty with bacon and truffle mayo on brioche.

Housemade tater tots (pick your seasoning salt, up to 10 available)

Thick and creamy hand spun strawberry milkshake, served in a beaker.


Lunchbox Laboratory

7302 15th Avenue Northwest (Ballard)
Seattle, WA 98117
(206) 706-3092

Review: FRESH the Movie - Coming to a Theater Near You

April 2010, the movie Fresh will launch its nationwide debut...and I highly recommend it. Among films of this genre, my notes say, “This film is vital.” I received an early release copy from the director, Ana Joanes, and was surprised to learn this is only her second documentary. Fresh is evidence that the Swiss-born, Brooklyn-based Joanes has a unique gift for storytelling. Production on Fresh began in late 2005, and it is a thrill to see the final outcome.

NOTE: Early marketing for the film is a grassroots effort. If you'd like to host a screening...details here.

Fresh director Ana Joanes takes us on a journey, contrasting large-scale agriculture with champions of the small farm movement.

The film offers a critical look at mono crops (farms that grow only one product, like corn), profiled against successful farms that have ultimately, veered from the industrial agricultural model. Driving the point home are stunning images of densely-packed feed lots, which make a startling juxtaposition to “farms done right”.

What distinguishes Fresh from other films of this sort is an undercurrent of hopefulness. The film profiles farmers who have broken with modern farm methods, and are thriving. Yes, the American agricultural system is broken. Fresh shines the light on farmers who are pioneering a new model, successfully.

Champion of the good food movement, Michael Pollan and agricultural economist John Ikerd provide an important narrative. “We can tip the balance of nature to a certain extent, “ says Ikerd, “but when we tip the balance too far, it causes problems.”

While Americans have the lowest food-to-income ratio in the world, Ikerd raises the alarm. “We got so obsessed with productivity and having more cheap stuff….We’re facing the inevitable consequences.” High-density animal farming, resulting concentrations of urine and feces that produce toxic waste, teamed with the heavy use of antibiotics and crop pesticides…the current model for cheap food is fraught with external costs.

Ikerd cautions, “It’s time to shift to a different world view, a different paradigm for the future.”

Cut to a pastoral scene of idyllic cows grazing on knee-high grass. Swoope, Virginia sustainable farmer Joe Salatin says, “It doesn’t get much better than this.” Illustrating his point, we see the interconnectedness of a truly sustainable farm. Cows graze on the land, and to avoid over use, they are rotated to a different pasture…daily. Three days after the cows, follow free range chickens that break up cow pies and feed on the fly larvae. The commensal relationship goes full circle. Chickens benefit from the cows, and in turn, break up the manure, which results in a natural fertilizer for the field.

As a steward of the land, the rotation system Salatin uses also makes financial sense. Between grazing and cutting the field for hay, “Not only do you get diversity of multi-speciation, but you’ve got all these complimentary income streams.” He illustrates his point in hard numbers, “Instead of the neighbor who just runs beef cows getting $150 per acre, we’re getting over $3,000 dollars an acre per acre.” Stalin ads, “And we haven’t bought a single seed or an ounce of fertilizer in 50 years!”

Will Allen, professional basketball player-turned urban farmer adds another important perspective. Farming on just 3 acres in urban Milwaukee, Allen illustrates vertical gardening with hanging flower pots staggered from floor to ceiling. In this case, the flowers have been replaced with lettuce, and the camera pans to a bounty of greens. Shuffling between rows of hanging baskets under a greenhouse canopy, Allen says, off-handedly, “We grow 150 varieties of micro-greens and salad greens.”

Moving on, Allen digs his massive hands into a wooden box filled midnight black soil, teeming with worms. Compost is key. “Whether it’s urban agriculture or rural agriculture, in a sustainable way, you have to grow healthy soil. That’s what we do.” He drives the point home, “We’re going to compost 6 million pounds of food waste from the City of Milwaukee this year.”

“We compost the waste and feed it to the worms.” Allen adds, “That food residue turns into microbiological-rich soil.” With his hands writhing with worms, he says, “This is your base material for growing good food.”

Diversification on Allen’s farm includes above-ground tanks of freshwater Tilapia. There too, the waste goes full circle. A pump removes water from the fish tanks, which is then used to water the plants. “Just like a stream or a river,” Allen reminds an attentive audience on a farm tour. “The plant’s roots take up the nutrients and clean the water.”

Fresh profiles a number of other farms, woven seamlessly with narrative of Pollan and Ikerd. (Kudos to the film's editor, Mona Davis.) The end result is an informative film that is both enlightening and entertaining.

NOTE: As of this writing, the film is touring in limited release. Check the website for screenings near you.

11 Things I Learned from Crescent Dragonwagon

I sent the following post to Crescent before I hit "publish". (Call it a courtesy preview....)

Fresh off a teaching gig at Mexico's famous Rancho La Puerta, Crescent reviewed the post, and as usual, chimed in with her own comments. She has given me permission to share our exchange...and her comments are in itallics.


Award-winning author Crescent Dragonwagon and I have been friends for years. While we don’t see each other much, Crescent has taught me the beauty of regularly scheduled phone calls. We block out an hour or more; she fixes a pot of tea, and over the phone, we settle in for a long and lingering conversation. Inevitably, she bestows a wheelbarrow full of wisdom that keeps me pondering for weeks.

Our first encounter was in the spring. Touring Seattle, we stopped a favorite park, wedged between a freeway and the edge of Chinatown. A swath of cherry trees were in full bloom and shafts of sunlight found us...lingering under a shower of blossoms.

[Crescent: Traca commented that it was like being under a huge frilly ante-bellum skirt, and it was! We also visited with some Japanese community gardeners, very old, non-English speaking. Perhaps because neither she nor I ever take a day off, it was pure enchantment for both of us.]

Spring is bold and vibrant, and in my mind, forever linked to Crescent. Since I’ve got her on my mind, I thought I’d share:

11 Things I Learned from Crescent Dragonwagon

1. Embrace your weird ass name. As Crescent tells it, in a bold and defiant move she chose her name during her “hippy dippy days”. Although I did not choose my name, it has its own colorful history. Below the surface, both our names reveal so much more.

[Crescent: Well, at the time I thought I was a radical, not a hippie... the full story's here. I don't know if I embrace my wierd-ass name so much as I do live with it, including my ambivalence.]

2. Money in publishing is a nebulous thing. Write anyway.

[Crescent: YES! Traca, if you got this from me, and if anyone else gets it from me via you, we've added major credit to our karmic American Express accounts.]

3. When it comes to photography, we’re like the odd couple. I photograph everything. She photographs nothing. As a skilled observer, I’m convinced she “sees” more. (I lean on the image; she expresses it through words.)

[Crescent: Aw. This is nice, Traca. Of course, we have to mention my partner, David, who IS willing to photograph for me these days, much better than I could, so I've come over to your point of view somewhat. But, people, I'm convinced we all see in different ways, have different natural gifts in what and how we see, which we then have the option to develop. Or not. Traca and I both take our natural gifts and inclinations and push 'em to a point some might call obsessive.]

4. An infinity sign and a bit of wisdom changed my life. Crescent tells me: We are all on the infinity path. Sometimes you’re on a peak. Sometimes you’re in a valley. Embrace them both. They’re equally valuable steps in the process.

[Crescent: Because, you know, whether or not we embrace the unpleasant, difficult, heartbreaking stuff --- we get it. So best to embrace, which doesn't mean like, it, since there it is. Once we quit pathologizing (it's WRONG to feel badly or be in a tough unfair situation at times, rather than seeing it as a natural part of life, from which no life is exempt) the resistance ends ... and with it a whole layer of pain. You may still hurt, but not so badly, and WITH utility --- with a sense that you can use the suffering/hurt/fear/loss.]

5. The back of the book –notes, bibliography, acknowledgements offers its own treasure trove. These days, I read books from back to front…and pay particular attention to bibliographies. (A great example? See “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food” by Jennifer 8. Lee. Pure gold.)

[Crescent: Gee, I didn't realize I taught Traca this! COOL! (Another reason to tell people you love or respect that you do and why. And I hadn't heard of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles which I will now go and seek out. Tho on Traca's and mine first day together we visited a fortune cookie factory which had a sign above the seconds which said 'unfortunate cookies.' I bet you have a picture of that somewhere, don't you, Traca? And can lay your hands on it? Which is REALLY impressive!] NOTE: It is one of my favorite photos. Unfortunatly, between my stolen laptop and her currupted hard drive, it's officially lost forever.

6. The drop of water theory. To the naked eye, a drop of water is just that. But under a microscope, it reveals much more than meets the eye. Pond water? A single drop reveals a whole life force teeming within. What you see, depends on your perspective. The lesson? Be willing to change your perspective.

[Crescent: Ah, this is one from my late father, Maurice Zolotow. His great literary compliment was "It's a drop of water book" --- meaning, it may explore only an infinitesimal part of life, but through that part, the writer shows you the whole world.]

7. The drop of water theory, as it applies to books. During one of our long distance tea parties, we had a long chat about books. While Crescent’s work falls into two distinct genres-- food and children’s books-- her reading list extends far beyond that. A random book on fly fishing, she tells me, revealed incredible insights. The lesson? Read everything. (See Crescent’s current reading list here on the left. Scroll down.)

[Crescent: Whoops, I better update it, Traca! Thanks for reminding me.]

8. To be a good writer, read excellent writing. Visiting her home in Vermont, I was ushered into my room. In the adjoining bathroom, she placed a carefully selected a stack of New Yorker magazines. Dog-eared pages highlighted articles of note. What can I say? She is my Socrates; I am her enthusiastic student. Thanks, Cres. I get it now.

[Crescent: Soc it to me, baby! (Y'all, Traca is too generous. Really. She is.)]

9. Love them anyway. Now in her mid-50’s, Crescent adds elder care to a long list of competing priorities. As her aging mother becomes increasingly dependent, their rocky relationship takes on a new challenge. It’s an exasperating… and often infuriating process, but she handles it with grace. The lesson: Love them anyway.

[Crescent: With this shift in time and life-cycles, sometimes you get a chance to work out things that you couldn't when you were a child-child and they were a gigantic and controlling adult. When you are an adult child and they are old enough that they start to lose it, you get one last opportunity. My mother can no longer rehash the past or worry about the future - she's in NOW, and it is much easier to be with her. Without past and future, make a reduction sauce of life and it comes down to ... love.]

10. Nothing is wasted on the writer. This phrase was often repeated by her father, Maurice. He too, was an author. Every experience, large or small, becomes part of the author’s repetoir. Crescent embraces this theory wholeheartedly, and her repetior is as diverse as they come. Over the course of our friendship, she’s written a one-woman play, finished three books, has a new book under contract, lectured throughout the country, and taken numerous classes ranging from improvisation to hand drumming. A rich life, takes effort. Embrace it.

[Crescent: Thanks, MZ, for giving me this. Thanks, Traca, for passing this on.]

11. No matter what life deals you, press on. It began as a routine day. She went to a conference; her husband of 23 years went on a long distance bike ride. The day would end…at the hospital. Ned, the love of her life, was hit by a car and died at age 44. Viewing her husband’s broken body in the hospital emergency room, blood and life saving medical debris was still fresh on the floor. She lowered her voice. “The doctor ,” she says, “wore scrubs with eggplants on them.”

[Crescent: They were black, with a print of vegetables and fruit. Picking up the pieces, Traca makes this sound fast --- it wasn't; I was IN pieces, and lived with this for a couple of years.]

She closed her award-winning B&B and two years after Ned's death, moved to Vermont. While Ned’s name frequently pops up in conversation, she has built a new life, with a new love. Tragedy is a life-altering event. You choose what comes next.

[Crescent: Well, it's funny, Traca. You do and you don't. If the hit you've taken is deep enough, you can't hurry getting through grief. You can't fast-forward to your future. You have to wait for it to be revealed to you, but it's THE most active kind of waiting you will do in your life. You have to open wide, wide, wide, at a time when you are in so much pain. You have to somehow keep hold of a faith in life, even when you really don't feel it, and let time pass.]

A final bit of Crescent wisdom: When you stick your head in the sand, you leave your ass exposed!

[Crescent: Traca! You know I said this for the first and only time (so far) once when we were talking! I'm so glad you reminded me!]

Related posts:

I Remember...Springtime in Vermont

Vermont's Brattleboro Farmers Market

Writing Fearlessly with Crescent Dragonwagon

Taste Washington Preview

On the eastern side of Washington State, the land gives way to arid rolling hills. Vineyards stretch over the landscape, making it a prime wine growing region. Here, the lure of the grape has turned into a modern day gold rush.

Over the past 30 years, Washington’s wine industry has grown exponentially. In 1981, there were 19 wineries. Today, there are over 650 wineries registered with the state. The economic impact of all that wine? Tops $4.7 billion, nationwide.

Showcasing Washington State wine is a three day extravaganza called Taste Washington. The last weekend in March, wine enthusiasts flock to Seattle. Festivities begin with an awards ceremony on Friday, followed by a full day of seminars on Saturday (see schedule here). Taste Washington culminates on Sunday with a Grand Tasting, featuring 200 wineries, paired with 75 Seattle-area restaurants.

Clearly, I have been missing out! I’m thinking Taste Washington is a great excuse for a weekend in the city. Book a room downtown and skip the designated driver detail. Drink, eat, then slip into a cab. Sounds perfect, no?

Last night’s Taste Washington preview was pure decadence. Nine wines and eight courses later…our party hit three restaurants and Tweeted throughout the night (see #TasteWA). We sampled several small run wines, and food was of the “last meal on earth” variety. Think: sweet Dungeness crab, tender octopus, smoked black cod, briny oysters…you get the idea.

I stuck close to Seattle Magazine’s wine writer, Shannon Borg. At one point, I buried my nose deep into a glass of red. Surfacing, I gasped for air and blurted “It smells like popcorn!” Convinced my glass may have a wee bit of funk, I took another cautious sniff. Second round... another blast.

Afraid my lack of sophistication was becoming obvious, mercifully, Shannon stepped in with a bit of reassurance. “It’s not the glass; it’s the wine.”

Others detected the scent, and offered “Buttered popcorn.”

Another added, “Microwaved.”

“That’s it!”

Experts debate the exact figure, but approximately 80% of taste is attributed to aroma. Under the watchful eye of a journalist noting our taste adventure, I attempted to hold my breath and sample the wine again. The difference was remarkable!

Shannon explained that the buttery flavor in wine is often an attribute—like a buttery chardonnay, for example. To evoke that flavor, the winemaker chooses to execute a secondary fermentation. All wines go through a primary fermentation, but it is the optional secondary – or malolactic fermentation where this butter profile is achieved. During this process, the malic acid converts to lactic acid (think: dairy)…hence, the notes of butter.

As we moved to our second stop, I noticed a change in wine glass shapes. I’d heard the shape of the glass has an effect on wine and asked Shannon her thoughts. Building on our scent conversation, she explained how the shape of the glass impacts the amount of air flow. The shape also effects how the wine travels through your mouth. With a narrow glass, like a champagne flute, the liquid travels straight across your tongue. A wide-mouth glass is a different experience. The broader opening allows the wine to travel throughout your mouth, including the sides of your tongue.

Shannon & Seattle Magazine’s editor Rachel Hart bowed out early and I turned my attention to other folks at the table…Q13 Fox News anchor Lily Jang, Foodista’s Melissa Peterman, Serious Eats' Leslie Kelly, and event maven Nicole Logan.

Finally, after months of watching Lily on TV, I got a chance to ask, “Why are the cooking demos always so rushed?" While the morning news program spanned four hours, inevitably, chefs raced to complete their dishes. "Can’t they allocate more time?”

Lily shrugged her shoulders and said, “They get five minutes.” Then added, “That’s an eternity in TV time!”

Okay people, on with the photos…


FIRST STOP: Matt's in the Market

Vin du Lac 2008 Columbia Valley "Les Amis" Riesling
Tamarack Cellars 2008 Columbia Valley Chardonnay
Isenhower Cellars 2007 Horse Heaven Hills "River Beauty" Syrah

First wine of the night is a Buty

Grilled octopus skewer with potatoes and chimichurri aioli

Housemade country pate with pistachios, pickled, salumi, and cheese.


SECOND STOP: Steelhead Diner

Kyra Wines, 2008 Columbia Valley Chenin Blanc
Cadaretta, 2007 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Barnard Griffin, 2007 Columbia Valley Reserve Malbec

Reserve, baby! Their website has fun tasting notes: Estery, spicy, black pepper nose with hints of dark chocolate. Approachable, agreeable attack boasts rich, plum flavors followed by coffee, toffee and vanilla notes. The smooth, mouth-coating texture gives way to a fresh, bright finish.

Humbolt oysters direct from the Squim acquaculture farmer. Granita is made with red wine vinegar, shallot, white peppercorn, and salt. Chef says, "Essentially, it's nothing more than a pickling brine."

Smoked Alaskan black cod with oil-cured black olives, roasted red pepper on base of roasted spring garlic mojo aioli.

House cured Washington beef bresaola (salumi) with crispy shiitake mushrooms, Pleasant Valley peppercorn gouda, and Tuscan extra virgin olive oil



Chinook Wines 2008 Yakima Valley Chardonnay
Hedges Family Estate, 2008 Columbia Valley "CMS" Sauvignon Blanc
Côte Bonneville 2009 DuBrul Vineyard Yakima Valley Cabernet Franc Rosé

Local oysters on the half shell - Fanny Bay, Deer Creek, Pebble Beach, Deep Bay, Penn Cove Select, Evening Cove (all are here, though I can't vouch for the order.) Served with a pepper mignonette --tabasco, champagne vinegar, and a touch of honey.

Dungeness crab Louie roll

Parting libabtion: espresso cocktail

Disclaimer: Washington State Wine Commission and Taste Washington extended the invitation. Thankfully, I was dining on someone else's dime. Many thanks to the folks who made it happen. Fabulous evening!