Lunch Box Buffet is Killing it With Noodle Soup and Buns
The confluence of tourist chow and the oft-spawning generic steam table deli comes to a crashing head on 34th St., especially this block right across from Penn Station. Make no mistake, it is a struggle for the good stuff to shine in this space, and the area has seen no real new changes for the positive lately. Still, Lunch Box Buffet has seen itself noted often by Midtown Lunch for having a Fay Da Bakery outpost, selling Chinese steamed and baked buns and cakes/pastries, and later for bringing forth a chef from Flushing to make good stuff happen with the noodle soup front. While the Fay Da supplied baked and steamed fare was ousted to be replaced by house-made Chinese bakery goods, the noodle soups remain. It behooves a look at both, especially on a humid, splatteringly rainy day.
They’re pushing the bubble tea hard on one half of the sign. The flavor variety is staggering. Despite the fact that it’s all artificial powder added to tea with disgustingly high amounts of sugar and fat, with no help at all from the tapioca bubbles, I’ll be damned if one of these days I’m going to miss on a couple of buns and a bubble tea for a ridiculously cheap lunch. In my imagination, this is exactly what Taiwanese cool kids do and damned if I miss out on what’s big in Taipei. Plus some of those cakes look freakin’ delicious. Someone at my office is gonna get one for their birthday, I swear it.
The staggering selection of baked buns across the sweet/savory spectrum is out for breakfast time as well. I’ve been stuffed for the entire morning with two roast pork buns and a coffee. For $2 you can get any one bun and an 8oz coffee, which isn’t too bad to start the day. In a steam case behind the cash register up front is a selection of steamed buns: plain, pork and veggie, pork & cabbage (the singular best implementation of the pork & cabbage bun is this one, here, at Lunch Box, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar), roast pork, shrimp noodle rolls, sausage buns (with lap cheong sausage), rice wrapped in banana leaves, and pork shumai. The costliest thing on that list is the shumai, four for $2.50 and decently sized.
The cold items diverge off into fruit on the far left, but there’s all kinds of cold Chinese dishes to be had. The seaweed looks fabulous if you like seaweed.
This side of the hot bar has your standard generic dragon items. You’re probably not missing much. Further down is more authentic stuff. Dried sauteed sesame beef? Yesplz. Plus there’s amazing looking stir-fried eggplant in there. $1.75 gets you one selection from anywhere on the line, $5 gets you five selections. Be forewarned, though, I stand skeptical about steam-table fare at high-dollar value real estate locations. There’s no way corners aren’t being cut somewhere down the line. Lunch Box hasn’t suffered the shuttering and swift reopening of Ming Du, but I would much rather sneak tastes off of a friend’s food from the hot bar and keep to the noodle soup and buns myself.
More hot bar. There’s about 30 or 40 options out there. I haven’t seen them shift around too much, so if you really want to try everything over the course of a few visits, you can do so.
Back to the soup and buns. I ordered the pork and pickled cabbage noodle soup, which is my standard for Chinese noodle soups. I’ve had amazing implementations of this soup from Main Noodle House and Ginger’s, with decent but not as awesome versions from Chef Yu and Evergreen 38. Lunch Box, like those already-mentioned stalwarts, offers a variety of noodle types to choose from: lo mein style, Shanghai style, udon, and mei fun-style thin noodles. Fuji Bakery’s version can just up and die for all I care. Just for the lulz I grabbed a kaya bun, one of their rotating $1 specials. I saved a whole 25 cents, huzzah! Who knows, maybe I’ll be hungry later. Just a heads-up, the kaya buns have sold out for the day or two that I wanted to grab them to bring home, and this is for very good reason.
The soup itself is the singular best example of how a pork with pickled cabbage noodle soup should be. Seriously, I haven’t had better than this. Ginger’s comes close, but that’s about as close as it’s gonna get. The pickled cabbage is still a little bit crunchy but it has enough give to indicate a proper pickling, and the pork is cooked properly and leaves behind no grease to the soup. The broth is a clear Chinese-style chicken broth but it’s picked up a sesame and vinegary tartness to it, likely from the ingredients as they soaked in. My only qualm: the Shanghai noodles I got weren’t as good as Shanghai noodles from Main Noodle House, Ginger’s, Chef Yu, etc. Any other place the noodles had some thickness to them, not as dense and chewy as udon but nothing like what basically amounted to the linguini that these noodles remind me of.
Still, though, it’s a big satisfying meal. I didn’t even need the kaya bun. This is a big-ass amount of soup for $6.25. With a $1 bun added on, this is under the $10 ML limit and tons of chow for the money.
On to the bun! The kaya bun is a yellowish sweet bun, probably full of yolks and steamed before baking (it’s definitely not Chinese challah) topped with some kind of sweet crumbly substance. It tastes like it could be incredibly fine caramelized sugar or something like that. The filling, though, is insane. It’s a yellow sweet custard, and I have no clue what it is but it’s amazing. It adds to the already dense content of the bun itself. This and a savory bun is going to fill you way up unless you want a huge, huge lunch. The kaya bun is about fifty times better than the standby classic egg custard tart.
I went back the next day for the other $1 bun special, the Switzerland bun. It was almost as neutral as the country lending its name, but it was a nice sweet, thick bun. It had a real doughiness to it – I think they treated it kind of like a bagel, steaming it before baking it. It’s lightly frosted so it has a barely perceptible sugary crunch to it. Think of the Switzerland bun like a Chinese-style glazed donut that hasn’t been fried, and you’re on track.
There’s places where you could do worse than Lunch Box in this tourist-packed hell, and they’re to the right and left of Lunch Box respectively. If you’re not coming from north and thus passing the steam-table greatness of Ming Du (or just have an iffy feeling about their recent DoH closure) or the amazing buns at Fuji Bakery, Lunch Box may not necessarily be a destination lunch but it’s damn easily accessible. A block from Penn means that if you’ve got a desire to not hand money over to an Amtrak dining car (we’ve all seen the Sysco crates getting loaded on board, and who wants to eat that crap?) or if you just want a quick nosh on the way home, you’re going to get a lot for your money – and it actually tastes good, too!
The + (What somebody who knows Flushing-style soups and buns would say)
- Some of the best Chinese noodle soup in the area
- Fresh homemade buns of all types
- Chinese-bakery goods and bubble tea, mmmm
- $6.25 for a lion’s share of awesome soup!
The – (What somebody who hates parkouring through tourists would say)
- There’s no way food this cheap can be that good
- The best buns sell out quickly and don’t get replenished fast enough, or at all
- Whether noodles came from China or not, I don’t want linguini in a Chinese noodle soup
Lunch Box, 257 West 34th (btw. 7th and 8th)