Bellevue's Lunchbox Laboratary is a high-energy burger joint and bar that offers good, more-than-ample burgers and salads.
Scott Simpson’s original Lunchbox Laboratory was an experiment in excess, the product of a brilliant madness from an inspired chef with an indie streak a mile wide. Many who made regular pilgrimages to that funky Ballard shack for his outrageously good, magnificently proportioned burgers wondered how he could sustain the business model. And yet it has outlived its founder.
Shortly before his sudden death a little more than a year ago, Simpson partnered with restaurateur John Schmidt, whose collection of Neighborhood Grills stretches from Eastlake to Green Lake to Lake Forest Park to Bellevue. Together they streamlined the concept and reopened a shiny new Lunchbox Laboratory in sleek, modern digs near South Lake Union in January 2011. Clearly a nascent chain, a second store opened in Bellevue earlier this year.
Like the original, big is the operative word at this high-energy burger joint and bar in the Elements complex. As one staffer said, “We have big burgers, big salads and big waiters.” The kitchen’s over-the-top tendencies have been tamed somewhat for the masses, but the cheeky attitude is intact and the burgers and shakes are very good.
The best seller is the “Burger of the Gods.” Gooey with Gorgonzola, slippery with candied balsamic onions, it was Simpson’s favorite and one of mine, too. The prototype contained a mix of rib eye, prime rib and grass-fed sirloin. Here the patty is American Kobe-style beef, which tastes a little leaner but still has plenty of character. Proportionately it seems less grandiose than the original, but it remains a towering, double-fistful of deliciousness.
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I’m also a fan of the “dork” burger, a savory duck-and-pork patty under creamy Jack cheese, caramelized “Lunchbox” onions and garlic mayo. When the waitress asked, “Do you want bacon with that?,” I recklessly answered yes, and didn’t regret the two dollars extra for a pile of thick, honey-cured rashers.
Daily specials are dubbed “Experiments.” The “Sorority Major” was a robust lamb patty elegantly adorned with mild goat cheese, onions and garlic-truffle mayo. “The Toasted Turkey” wasn’t a burger at all. Cubes of roasted turkey breast were smothered in havarti and toasted onion mayo. Like all the sandwiches here, it was stacked on an excellent buttered and toasted Kaiser bun from Essential Bakery.
No need to stick with their combos; you can build your own or sub a bean patty for meat on any sandwich. Prices average $14, not cheap for a burger, but worth it for quality meats, freshly ground. Plus it includes your choice of potato.
Skip the dry potato salad. Order the tots only if you miss the school cafeteria. Thick, house-made chips are best when they are warm (a 50-50 chance in my experience), but even then they were under-seasoned — easily remedied by rummaging through several shakers of flavored salts in a caddie at each table.
Have the skinny fries, or consider paying 50 cents extra for rangy sweet-potato fries and lavish them with cinnamon salt before dipping them into sweet chili mayo. For $2 more, substitute “Cheddar American Mac.” The ruffled noodles capture a sweet, cheddar-ish sauce that does a good imitation of Velveeta.
Appetizers like mini corn dogs, pork rinds and “Buff Pops” (soggy cream cheese-jalapeño fritters riding a searing chili pepper sauce) seem targeted to those who are (or are planning to get) seriously wrecked. To that end, the bar features flavored rums and vodkas, and the menu touts Kool-Aid cocktails and booze-spiked shakes. The shakes are dense and luxurious indulgences even unadulterated.
I’m guessing few come here for salads. They, too, are immense. The Lunchboxer easily contains a pound of leaf lettuce tossed liberally with Gorgonzola dressing and well-hidden beneath a thicket of diced turkey, ham and tomato, wedges of hard-cooked egg and purple coils of candied balsamic onions.
Service is cheerful and swift. The comic-book décor runs to bright colors, bowling pins and lunchboxes galore. Windows offer a glimpse of mountains, or ironically, the gym across the courtyard. Customers come in jeans or sport jackets; in couples and in packs; some with youngsters and grandparents in tow. No one leaves hungry.
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