Culinary Nooners Part II

Ever have a nostalgic flashback to your good old high school cafeteria, pining for the days when your iceberg lettuce salad with extra ranch and concave grilled cheese sandwich and 600-oz fountain Coke came on a red plastic tray for the whopping price tag of $5? Yeah, me neither.

But while I may not miss high school “cuisine,” or anything about high school for that matter, there’s just something about a cafeteria. Maybe it’s the comforting lack of atmosphere, the predictably unpalatable but incredibly cheap food, the little cartons of chocolate milk, the 101 stories you can make up about the people sitting in rows at long plastic tables gossiping about work or playing cards or reading romance novels while chewing their rubber hamburger cud.

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In this installment of Culinary Nooners, you’ll get a blast into the past, and a Nestlé Drumstick too, at the Express Cafe in the United States Post Office in the Pearl District, a hidden gem (I use this term lightly, mind you) where your grilled cheesesteak comes with a free bodice-ripper, and you just might be invited to join a rousing game of Uno by a guy wearing a t-shirt that says “I used up all my sick days, so I just called in Dead.”

To get to the cafe, you’ll have to ascend to the fourth floor of the post office via the elevator, located in the lobby next to the print-your-own-stamps machine. The cafe menu’s in the directory, in case you’d like a preview.

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The slightly scuffed café’s decor brings to mind a hospital cafeteria and it looks like it’s been there forever, but it’s lovingly tended and the staff is very cheery. CNN plays on the large flatscreen TV bolted to the east wall, unless someone requests a ball game.

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Taking your place at the end of the runway, you’ll see the ubiquitous red plastic trays of cafeteria fame.

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A closer examination reveals that real live sample plates exhibiting the day’s specials have been set atop the counter for your viewing pleasure. Today, the specials included the Postal Burger, a chicken sandwich with fresh cut fries and coleslaw, and stir fry with an egg roll.

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From the grill, you can order classics like the ham & cheese sandwich ($2.50), French Dip ($3.30), Tuna Melt ($3.60), or Garden Burger ($4.25). There are two soups made daily, and a salad bar with greens and garnishes, a bowl of cut fresh fruit, cottage cheese, and various apples, oranges and bananas scattered about both as decoration and edibles.

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Baggies of chips and candy bars share a basket by the register, there’s a cold case of soda pop, Mexican Coke and Jarritos, fountain soda, a goodie bar filled with fresh-baked cookies, doughnuts, and plastic-wrapped brownies and Rice Krispy treats, and a freezer filled with ice cream bars. Basically, everything you need to assemble the perfect cafeteria lunch, one that looks like this:

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Please notice the total on my receipt for this bygone-era feast: $7.25. To be fair, Don the friendly cafeteria man threw in my apple for free because it had some brown spots on the bottom.

Shellie was quite pleased with her $2.50 grilled cheese sandwich and cup of hearty beef chili ($2.75).

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Rob relished his $4.25 Philly Cheese Steak. “I was confused about how to pick it up,” he said. “So I just sort of opened my mouth and fell into it.”

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Mette brought her own lunch with her. Yes, you can do this. After all, it is a cafeteria.

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Whether you don’t have any friends but wish you did, or prefer to eat alone, the post office has got you covered. For those who wish to be social, there are tables full of jolly government employees playing Uno games that you can join, but there’s also a small library, from which you can borrow reading material.

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There are books to suit all sorts of literary tastes. Naturally, I was thrilled to pick up a free bodice ripper with my grilled cheese.

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I was quite full towards the end of lunch, so I gave my Drumstick to Rob.

He ran the gamut of emotions.

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Then, tragedy struck!
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But Rob is a firm believer in waste not, want not, and the 5 (or in this case, 25)-second rule.
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Eat it or wear it, Rob!

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And that concludes this installment of Culinary Nooners.

USPS Express Cafe  *  715 NW Hoyt, 4th Floor * Mon-Fri 8am-6:30pm, Sat 8:30am-5pm

This feature is part two of an Under the Table series entitled “Culinary Nooners,” where I find out-of-the-ordinary lunchtime destinations so you can have a little midday mini-adventure. You know, spice up your lunch life.