A few years ago, I worked at a law firm in the Financial District. Sometimes, I'd bring my lunch from home -- typically a sandwich or some leftover pasta, invariably an uninviting shade of its dinner-time self. More often than not though, I'd pick up food from the one of the delis, steam table salad bars, or assorted take-out spots studding the blocks winding around the 30-story office building where I worked. Save for the occasional hike up the hill to Chinatown or Ferry Building sojourn, by and large, this micro-community of eats was it for me. There was a San Francisco Soup Company outpost next to the lobby. I frequently enjoyed the chicken tortilla soup, usually in a bread bowl. There was a sandwich shop clinging to the other side of the building. I liked how the owner sliced avocados for my turkey sandwich: he popped out the pit, made six swift incisions, and fanned the contents out like waves along the expanse of a split dutch crunch roll caked in mayo. Then, both above and below layers of tomato, red onion, lettuce, and halved banana peppers, he carefully folded sheets of watery turkey so no errant bits flapped over the sides. The cross-section was beautiful, like stained glass, quite Scanwich-worthy. The sandwich, of course, tasted like most you get downtown for $5.25. I tried many others, and while a few slightly farther-flung establishments stood out for their fresh-carved leg meat, decent tomatoes, free cups of coleslaw, and the like, I went there again and again -- because I appreciated how the man sliced avocados, because the price was right, and, most importantly, because I could leave my desk, zip down the elevator, get a football-sized sub, and slip back into the confines of my closet-like office before a YouTube clip finished buffering.
There were also the self-service salad bars: piles of faux-fancy greens and their common accoutrements -- bacon bits, squishy cherry tomatoes, pre-packaged croutons, and drippy canned beans -- alongside lamp-warmed tubs of sorry-looked ravioli bathed in thin sauce, dried-out roasts, and other lackluster entrees, bacteria-friendly, all conveniently sold by the ounce. Despite my reoccurring health concerns, these places terrorized my wallet more often than my digestive tract. I'd go, stack a few deceptively heavy items in a plastic container, add a tuft or two of lettuce, grab a roll, and head over to the weigh station, where the listless cashier would declare, to my shock and horror, that I now owed upwards of $10 to the awful enterprise's greedy proprietor, money I could have put towards three days' worth of decent bread and cheese -- plus a few cold cans of beer after work.
Office workers are captive diners. Since people will pay more for convenient bad food in the middle of the day, lunch spots charged with feeding the downtown drones know their registers will ring regardless of how good their wares are. For every self-described foodie frantically mining for diamonds in the roughest of roughs, there are a dozen people who, at least for an hour or so, don't care.
A Lee's Deli. Photo by Aimee Shapiro
I once found bugs of indeterminable type floating in a huge styrofoam cylinder of wonton soup from Lee's, that ubiquitous chain of dirty delis with the heinous red signs and peanut butter sandwiches for $2.75. After pouring the half-gallon of buggy broth down the drain and rinsing out my mouth with diet Dr. Pepper, I telephoned the more seasoned co-worker who'd recommended I try the joint in the first place. She screeched over the phone: "Dude, you're not supposed to get the soup!" She emailed a few minutes later to say the salad bar was off-limits too -- I could go only for sandwiches, and just specific ones at that: Nothing involving meat, fish, or eggs rendered into salad form; nothing served hot. Another time, I ordered two slices of mushroom pizza from a weird cafe around the corner offering nearly every sort of lunch-like dish an unimaginative person might ponder gobbling. The guy behind the counter -- definitely not a pizzaiolo -- slipped the skinny, grease-mottled triangles into a to-go box of flat-screen proportions adorned with the visage of a portly, mustachioed man in a floppy chef's hat. One of the partners stood next to me on the elevator back up, and I, a little embarrassed, sweating profusely from the heat emanating off the gigantic pizza box, could have sworn he was smirking. The head partner at this firm was a older man on the brink of retirement. On my second day of work, his secretary pulled me aside in the hallway and whispered that he hated the smell of other people's food -- if I wanted to eat anything with a remotely pervasive odor at my desk, I'd need to be careful and keep the door closed so as not to incite his wrath. The head partner and I never actually spoke, but once I turned the corner of our shared hallway too quickly and almost ran into him -- holding in two hands a plastic bag sticky with fish sauce oozing from a carton of Thai noodles wrapped inside. He must have been in a hurry because he merely grunted and shook his head briskly before clomping off.