Lunchbox Laboratory: Lab Coat Necessary

This micro-restaurant makes every variety of burger you can name, and many you can’t. Just beware the bottom bun.

Opening the door to Ballard's Lunchbox Laboratory, I spotted my lunch date just on the other side, huddling back from the burger line, staring at the room as if she were a rabbit and it were a pair of 60-mile-an-hour headlights. "It's a little . . . overwhelming," she explained.At first, I thought she meant the décor: In terms of square footage, there isn't much to the 15th Avenue burger shack—just a slim row of tables against the front windows and a tiny back kitchen, with little room between—but there's sure a lot to look at. Every surface is studded with metal lunchboxes from obscure television shows, vintage signs, and more tchotchkes than my grandmother ever owned—a gen-X version of the old rusty-farm-tool décor espoused by family-friendly restaurants of the 1970s. Had I encountered Lunchbox Laboratory in my days of collecting macrame patterns and Tammy Faye Bakker memorabilia, I'd have hyperventilated so hard my brain would have overoxygenated and shut down before I ever looked at the menu board.But that menu board, the size of a ping-pong table, stretching from shoulder height to the ceiling and dividing the "dining room" from the "kitchen," was the obstacle my friend was referring to. Covered in writing, it's the Lunchbox Laboratory burger-creation toolkit: At publication time, the lab offered six patties, 14 cheeses, 14 sauces, five extra toppings, six sides, and four varieties of salt. That's not to mention the two additional boards around the corner, one advertising the daily chef's specials and one listing a couple dozen flavors of shakes.Since there's only the width of a 747 aisle separating burger aspirants from a tetanus incident with a rusty lunchbox or an intimate encounter with the person seated behind you, you have to stand very still and lean back to study the menu, as if you were at the base of the Space Needle trying to spot a friend waving at you from the SkyCity lounge. Meanwhile, chef Scott Simpson and his line cook are calling orders to each other on the side of the board, co-owner Allegra Waggener is brushing past you to deliver plates and pressing you for your order, and you can smell the fact that a lunch rush is going to hit in five minutes.That kind of overwhelming.Nevertheless, Lunchbox Laboratory is a prime example of Seattle's exciting new batch of microrestaurants. Men and women with three- and four-star culinary training, who a decade ago would have been plotting their own Marco's Supper Club or Brasa, are now opening smaller and smaller places—both physically modest bistros like Dinette or Sitka & Spruce, and even more tightly focused microrestaurants: farmers market stands; Skillet Street Bistro's mobile kitchen; Capitol Hill's minuscule Taco Gringos; and a goor-may burger joint like Lunchbox Laboratory.Not a few people bitch about how precious and pricey these microrestaurants are—for example, a burger meal at the Lab will set you back three times as much as one at Dick's—but the reason I love this trend is that it democratizes "fine dining," scuttling the kind of hierarchy that decrees that one-star restaurants (charging one-star prices) only produce one-star food. Sure, Simpson's "just" making burgers, but he wants to make the most incredible burgers you've ever ordered. The other reason I get excited about microrestaurants is that many of the most amazing dishes I've eaten outside the United States have been cooked on propane burners set up on a sidewalk, sold to me by someone whose livelihood was to make one dish and one dish alone, perfecting the knack until it came to them as unconsciously, and as surely, as walking up a flight of steps.Simpson's story of how he came to open his burger joint is a hand-to-mouth telenovela. Making his reputation at Blue Onion Bistro, where his mac 'n' cheese got him some national attention (he recreates the feat at Lunchbox Lab, served as one of the sides), Simpson moved up to the experimental Capitol Hill bistro Fork, which opened in 2006. The stress of running the place did him in: As the local rags have chronicled, when Fork closed after just a few months, Simpson shut himself in his house, gained a few hundred pounds, sought stomach-bypass surgery in Mexico, and ended up with life-threatening complications. He recovered both physically and mentally, fell in love (with his now-fiancée Waggener), refurbished an old burger stand himself, and returned to making imaginative comfort food.I do think Lunchbox Laboratory needs to make a lot of tweaks to its formula—and stop terrifying first-timers—but I also think Simpson's got the chops and the creativity to accomplish them. Even the difference between my first sandwich and my third was revolutionary. On that first visit, I blanked at the sight of too many choices and went with the "almost reuben" listed on his daily specials board: a corned-beef patty served with "baconized sauerkraut" (have two sweeter words ever joined the English language?) and million-island dressing. Neither the chef nor I had thought through the fact that ground-up corned beef won't actually hold together in a patty, nor that the combination of bacon fat, sauerkraut juices, and mayonnaise-based dressing would saturate the bottom bun, making it fall apart and slick my hand with a thick layer of grease every time I tried to pick it up. It was disgusting. Had my date's buffalo burger with blue cheese, bacon, and caramelized onions not been obscenely tasty, I might never have gone back.But her burger was great, and so I did come back a few more times, sampling everything from a lamb burger with feta and olive spread (a little overcooked, but supremely flavorful) to a falafel sandwich with goat cheese. There wasn't a topping I didn't warm to, from the balsamic-hoisin sauce to the roasted pepper mix. And my final sandwich turned out pitch-perfect: A "dork" (duck-pork) burger, cooked a moist and pink-centered medium, tasted like a mullet looks—poultry business in front, pork-fat party in the back—and the chef had spooned over just the right amount of sweetly caramelized onions and garlic-sesame sauce to augment its flavors, not to drown the meat in its own fixings.And did I mention that the food looks great? All the burgers are served in brightly colored, high-lipped ceramic oval trays lined with paper, and if you order fries on the side, they arrive in a silvery bowl. Each burger comes with pale-green romaine leaves, tomato slices, red onion, and a quarter of a crisp, sour pickle. The shakes are served in pint-sized lab flasks topped with a big rosette of whipped cream.Simpson's also using top-notch ingredients. He sources his meat from all over the West Coast and grinds it in-house; at a proper 17 to 19 percent fat, even the plainest all-beef burger stays moist and loosely packed. His Essential Bakery buns are soft, lightly glossy, and the perfect size—not those crusty baguettes or ciabatta rolls that too many high-end burger places scratch up your mouth with.Nonetheless, in the spirit of LL's lengthy menu, I have a list of my own, offering some suggestions for improvement:1. Change the lettuce. This may sound OCD, but when we're talking about $10 burgers, every element counts. Romaine has a firm center rib, and no matter how I tried placing them the leaves wouldn't stack under the bun and kept sliding out as I ate, taking gloops of sauce and sometimes the entire bun with them. Butter or read leaf would work better.2. Drain the burger better before putting it on the bun. Higher-fat meats taste so much better, but LL pan-fries the patties instead of grilling them, so the juices don't drip away and instead tend to soak through the bottom bun. Alternatively, they could hand out Wet-Naps.3. After three or four beers, everyone loves deep-fried Tater Tots, but when I finally ate them sober for the first time in my life at the Lab, I realized they're oil bombs inside because the shredded-potato nuggets are engineered to be baked. Also, there's no point foofing up perfectly crusty fries with smoked tea salt or bacon salt, because their oh-so-creative flavors never come through.4. Give us easier access to the menu. Why not print up slips of paper listing all the burger choices, so people could check off the ones they wanted free of pressure? Or even post a copy of the full burger-creation toolkit on the front door so diners have time to study it first and make up their minds? Waggener's own advice to the uninitiated, which I heard her calling out to a bewildered customer one day, is either to start basic or pick a daily special and leave the experimenting to the

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