Box lunches generally bring these thoughts to the forefront of my mind – Great. I’m gonna take this first bite and the combination of room temperature deli meat and soggy bread is going to be like QUIKRETE on the roof of my mouth. As hard as I try using my tongue to dislodge the spackle, it will not budge. Now, at a business lunch with professionals in my field, I’m going to have to stick my finger in my mouth to release this god-forsaken box lunch sandwich. Let’s be real, y’all. You know durn well you think the same thing. Well, this week’s Eating with Esquire is going to change all of that. You, like me, will come to the Church of the Box-Lunch Convert and you’ll have Sally Bell’s Kitchen to thank for epiphany.
Place: Sally Bell’s Kitchen
Specialty: Box lunches and cupcakes
I grew up in Tapphannock, a short drive from Richmond. I went to high school in Mechanicsville, a stone’s throw from downtown. My entire family has been in and around Richmond for my entire life. I’m ashamed to tell you, this was my first trip to Sally Bell’s Kitchen. It was the first of what will be many future visits. My baby sis was my lunch partner and we thoroughly enjoyed our first lunch from Sally Bell’s. Here are the DEATS on SBK.
Drink: Sally Bell’s is a take-out lunch spot, so drinks are not their focus. They don’t have a soda fountain and they don’t sell alcoholic beverages. There are singular drink coolers on each side of the establishment stocked with bottled sodas. I was underwhelmed until I got to the Stewart’s Fountain Classics row. Maybe nobody better in the bottled soda game than Stewart’s and they easily make my favorite bottled root beer on the market. Sally Bell’s had any Stewart’s soda your heart desired: root beer, cream soda, black cherry, orange cream, and grape. As my son would say, “Muh-lish!”. (My son pronounces his D’s like M’s, which is always great because he’ll say, “Daddy, that dinner was MUH-LICIOUS!!” And in my brain I think, I know that’s right. Daddy IS malicious in the kitchen. Like a chestnut-haired Bobby Flay, just wearing people out in kitchen stadium!)
Edibles: When you walk into SBK, your eyes become laser-focused on the array of cupcakes staring at you from behind the glass. Restrain yourself. You’re here for lunch, remember? Don’t worry though, your pick of cupcake will be included with your boxed lunch. My sister and I both ordered the flagship, The Original Box Lunch. It includes your choice of sandwich, side, a deviled egg half, a cheese wafer, and dessert. Baby sis ordered first and asked a pertinent question – “Does your chicken salad have grapes or fruit chunks in it?” She received this reply, “Naw baby, we don’t do all that.” From this moment on, I was in. Here is a hard and fast Bearded Barrister Rule: Don’t fruit the chicken salad. (Or the pizza, or the beer, etc.). We both decided to get chicken salad as our sandwich and potato salad as our side. As for dessert, Katy chose the strawberry cupcake, while I went with the orange cupcake. Who wouldn’t choose orange?! Have you ever had the Hostess Orange Cupcake?!?! If I had to be stuck on a desert island or a bomb shelter during the Cold War, the Hostess Orange Cupcake would be my go-to. Three bajillion preservatives so they’ll never go bad. Plus, it hits the whole food pyramid – cream filling knocks out dairy, oranges knocks out fruit, and a cupcake is a bread so, duh, it’s gotta have some grain in it. Pure superfood right there. It’s like kale, but it tastes good. Anyways, this is what your boxed lunch looks like . . .
First things first, I ordered four additional deviled eggs. If you think I could only eat a singular deviled egg half, you don’t know me at all. There aren’t many foods on planet Earth that I like more than a Lucifer egg. Di-vine. And SBK’s eggs are tip-top. Tons of filling so the egg white is just a flavor capsule that you don’t even notice. And they didn’t mess it up with any onions or relish so it wasn’t crunchy – just smooth blend of mayo and mustard.
The chicken salad and roll were just what you want out of chicken salad – tasted just like your grandmomma made it. The potato salad was creamy and spiced just right and because of the serving size, it’s richness didn’t overpower, but accentuated. The cheese wafer was also a perfect bite. The top was graced with a pecan sliver, which made it feel like it came out of one of my Granny Ball’s Christmas tins. Sharp and salty, just like I like it. This brings us to the cupcake portion of the afternoon. SBK’s cupcakes are non-traditional in the sense that they don’t look like a muffin, nor do they come adorned with that annoying paper that inevitably steals part of your icing. Instead, they’re actually shaped like upside-down Hostess cupcakes. They’re frosted on the top and all around the sides. The only part that isn’t frosted is the bottom. You could see the orange flecks in my icing and it translated into the taste. Super-rich and a perfect icing-to-cake ratio. Like generally, my wife eats her cupcakes like Elaine Benes eats her muffins – tops only, no stumps. That’s mainly because she’s only in it for the icing. Well, she would not have to worry about that with these. Made me almost forget about my beloved Hostess cakes.
Atmosphere: My great-grandmother, Mom Bernice (pronounced BUR-niss), was, shall we say, frugal. She was tight. If we went over to her house as kids, she would tear a stick of gum in half, and then tear that half in half, and that was the amount of gum you had to chew. And we’re not talking these fancy, new-fangled gums like Trident Ice and Wintergreen where the flavor can last for like 20 minutes; I’m talking old-school, Wrigley’s Doublemint in the green packaging – two chews and all the flavor was gone. As you can imagine, for Mom Bernice, going out to eat was a luxury. If she went out to eat, it had to be some place special. Some place, as she would say, that had “atmosphere”. (It should be noted that she most famously described Lowery’s Restaurant in Tappahannock as having “atmosphere” so take that for what it’s worth).
My whole relationship with food and cooking was shaped by my Granny Ball. She was my babysitter as a kid, so I ate breakfast and lunch with her almost every day, and dinner at least two nights a week. She used to make me hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and grilled cheese with chicken noodle soup for lunch. Sometimes she’d burn the grilled cheese so she’d take the sandwich over to the sink and she’d scrape each side with a table knife to get the burnt parts off. Let me tell you, this trick does not work. Burnt bread is burnt bread regardless of how much ash you knock off. But I never said anything. I ate ’em all. My Granny, like most women of her era, didn’t lounge around in sweatpants and a t-shirt, even if she was just going to spend the day at her house. She had her hair done and jewelry on and was always dressed neatly. As such, she had to protect her clothing, meaning she was never in the kitchen without her trusty apron. It was all green with small white dots accenting it all over and she used to hang it up on the hook in her pantry that held all her cleaning supplies. When I walked in to Sally Bell’s, it made me feel like I was back in Granny Ball’s kitchen about to get something only she could make. For a carry-out lunch place, you really couldn’t ask for a better atmosphere.
Transportation: Sally Bell’s is on West Grace Street, easily accessible off of Broad and in arm’s reach of VCU’s campus. They have dedicated parking on one side of the building and there is also meter parking.
Service: It’s a lunch counter so you’re not in a typical restaurant-server environment, but I loved the two ladies working behind the counter. We told them it was our first time eating there and they ran us through all our options with ease. Knowledgeable and friendly, that’s as good as I want it.
Final Verdict: It’s highly possible that the next time I go, I just get a dozen deviled eggs and a half-dozen orange cupcakes. Don’t judge me. I know what I like! And I like Sally Bell’s Kitchen. Bearded Barrister approved!