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Monday, June 24

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It took less than a week working at my new job in the Loop for me to reach an unexpected conclusion: People who work downtown are obsessed with lunch.

The urban lunch routine begins around 9:45 when the first of a long chain of group emails poses the inevitable question: Where should we go to lunch? The emails continue throughout the day, ending somewhere around 3:15 that afternoon with a thorough evaluation of how said lunch fared in the digestive tract.

My initiation into lunchtime consumerism was confined to recognizable chain restaurants at the expense of my waistline and wallet. But with a little coaching from my office mates, I soon became adept at seeking out more independent (and budget-friendly) establishments. My search led me to Tokyo Lunch Boxes & Catering, one of the only places in the Loop that serves sushi (and other Japanese entrees) -- but it would be weeks before I could muster up the courage to try it.

I am a firm believer that all seasoned sushi-eaters will get food poisoning at least once in their life even if they only patronize chi-chi restaurants, and although I've consumed raw fish in plenty of questionable spots, my wanderings are not haphazard. I will only eat at sushi places where I have heard firsthand testimonials from survivors. And although plenty of my coworkers had partaken in the vegetarian offerings at Tokyo Lunch Box, no one had dared to try the fish. I attributed the wrinkled noses and polite refusals I received when I suggested an office trip to the fact that the tiny restaurant is somewhat unsightly, largely due to its location directly underneath the El tracks (Washington stop) -- not most people's idea of a choice destination to devour raw sea creatures.

But I have frequent cravings for spicy tuna and was anxious to find a place to satiate them during my tenure in the Loop.

On my first visit, I found a crowd of suits huddled around a center bar wolfing down California rolls and sticky rice -- a welcome sight (if the adventure was to end with me draped around my toilet, I would know there were others in the city with the same fate). I made my way to the counter where I was greeted by a grinning employee who gestured to several refrigerator cases displaying row upon row of maki, sashimi and sushi choices all packaged in darling "lunch box" containers. The selection is pretty standard: an assortment of maki, nigiri and sashimi combos made with salmon, tuna, shrimp tempura, yellow tail or eel, and a variety of veggie maki -- all reasonably priced from $3.99-$5.99. Numerous hot Teriyaki options are also available to order, but I would not be distracted from the uncooked.

The fish was recognizable -- a good omen, for sure -- and even looked appetizing. My eyes shifted back and forth from the choices before me to the sign above the case which read: "Sushi Made Fresh Daily." Oh, if only there was a guarantee. My hesitation drew laughter from the employee -- he smelled fear -- and I began to lose my nerve. I grabbed a veggie box, a miso soup (found amongst several Styrofoam-packaged appetizer options including rice and edamame), and made for the register. He followed and whispered loudly to the cashier, "This is her first time," a declaration that elicited more laughs from him and frowns from me -- that is until they gave me the miso soup on the house to celebrate my first visit. "Come back soon!" they yelled.

Those tricksters were determined to make a repeat customer out of me, and they succeeded. I'm a sucker for free food and the mixed vegetable maki, 12 pieces made with avocado, cucumber, carrot, asparagus, and oshinko (Japanese pickled radish), was fresh and palatable. I came back soon -- in fact, I returned the next day and confidently selected a lunch box of combination maki and nigiri with yellow tail, red snapper, and salmon. The sushi was decent. I will admit that I suffered a few post-maki stomach rumblings; luckily they proved to be merely psychosomatic symptoms.

Tokyo Lunch Box is not a place I'd willingly choose if someone was buying me dinner, but definitely somewhere I'd enthusiastically recommend to coworkers needing a sushi fix during business hours or a healthy alternative to the fast food establishments that pepper the city streets. A few have taken my suggestion, but most look at me aghast and ask if I'm crazy.

To these individuals I pose the following question: Is it crazier to eat raw fish from a sketchy hole-in-the-wall underneath the El or to escape for 20 minutes from your gray 6X6 cube, battle your way through the rest of the Loop workforce on the crowded streets of Chicago, stand in a line 20-humans deep and pay $9 for a sandwich?

Tokyo Lunch Boxes & Catering is located at 37 N. Wells. There are also locations at 111 E. Wacker and 179 W. Van Buren, and a new location is coming soon to the Merchandise Mart Food Court.

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Comments

j3s / October 13, 2003 9:54 AM

I used to eat at Lunch Box all the time when I worked downtown. Though it's not the best sushi in the world (which shouldn't be a surprise at the inexpensive price), it is one of the better options downtown. I usually ordered chirashi: assorted sashimi pieces on a bed of sushi rice. The owners are supernice guys who will usually give you free miso if you go more than twice. There are two other locations as well: one in Illinois Center (Michigan and Wacker) and one on Wells and Van Buren (next to the Radio Shack).

Lacey / October 13, 2003 4:28 PM

I'm intrigued by these darling lunch boxes you speak of. I'll try it.

Naz / October 13, 2003 5:01 PM

Mmm...chirashi. It's a shame I no longer have any good reason to go into the loop anymore but I'm interested in this place, and if I'm ever down there, I'll give it a shot. Japanese, yum indeed.

Cinnamon / October 13, 2003 9:03 PM

I occassionally ate lunch at the one at Illinois Center and found it to be far better than the veggie rolls I would get from the minimart near my office. I never had a doubt about the quality of their sushi after I talked to the chef one day about a week after they opened and he pulled out a block of salmon, asked me to smell how fresh it was. He even gave me a free Hokkigai because I said it was my favorite. It wasn't my favorite sushi place, but it was far better and healthier than my other options.

Miranda / October 14, 2003 2:06 PM

I go to the one at the Illinois Center several times a month. So much better than yet another bland chicken salad sandwich. Plus, free miso and veggie dumplings have won my consumer loyalty. I'm so easy...

J|b / October 15, 2003 5:43 PM

I have been eating at the Van Buren location for about four years now and have eaten most of the items on the menu. I love this place. The Beef Udon (Beef, Noodles, & Vegies in a broth) is a personal favorite, though the sushi is an oft ordered item. Jimmy, the owner, and his wife are wonderful people and will go out of their way to make you happy.

andrew / October 16, 2003 11:08 AM

i really like the people who run the place, but i hate the fact that this is what passes for "good" japanese food in the Loop. sub-par over priced sushi and way too salty/sweet teriyaki rice bowls. and made by Koreans. they should just do some simple korean food instead. i think the canned green tea is the best and most authentic thing in the place. the people at sunshine cafe in Andersonville should open up a lunch place here in the loop. let's pool our money together and make it happen. we put up with way too much crappy asian food here in chicago.

atomly / December 1, 2003 4:44 PM

If you're going there, it's all about the vegetable gyoza-- amazingly good. I'm also a big fan of the inari and the teriyaki tofu. A great vegan option in the loop.

antony / December 1, 2003 10:45 PM

Why must people dis? Yes, it's true, it is not the best sushi to be had in the city. But it's the best, healthiest, and closest to home-made food to be had for 5-8$ in the loop (or at least a block from Wells & Jackson.) I wouldn't made it through the last two winters without the Vegetable Tempura Udon Soup. Highly recommended. (And I was always told the 1st rule of Sunshine Cafe was to never talk about Sunshine Cafe?)

ed / January 27, 2004 4:47 PM

it's bad. why praise bad food just because it's the only thing there? that just promotes bad food.

 

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