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Desert Companion

Bun in a million: The University District's hot dog king

The University District's Lunch Box serves up innovative hot dogs - and a distinct community vibe

Let's think about lunch. Sitting at a table, waiting for your order. You're looking down at your iPhone, checking email, when you notice your tie doesn't really go with your shirt today. There are young people at two other tables, happily munching and talking, almost certainly college students from across the street. There is a nostalgic vibe here, thanks to a funny little display of tin lunch boxes, like the one you took to school as a kid. You're starting to like this place.

Then you catch something else, something that pulls you out of your weekday routine. It could be the taste of what you're eating, the music playing or the polite service that catches you off guard. Whatever the signal, it makes you realize lunch shouldn't be just quick and practical consumption squished between hours-long blocks of work. Lunch is time to break, for real, and find something to enjoy. For me, the signal was a poster on the wall. It's from a recent concert, when Alice in Chains, Mastodon and Deftones performed. I noticed it while I was waiting for the proprietor of the Lunch Box, Joe Moore, to fix my lunch, and it gave me two thoughts.

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1. Why didn't I go to that concert?

2. Why is this poster hanging in this neat little hot dog joint?

"I'm a pretty big metal fan," Moore tells me. "I tried a couple of times to go just straight metal in here, but it can be a little polarizing." Makes sense. "There's this great place in Chicago called Kuma's Corner, and it's just a bar with bar food, but it is straight up metal. And the crowd is not really who you think would go there. It's a bunch of hipsters. There isn't really a spot like that in Las Vegas, but it would definitely be a fun idea to do."

Moore, 28, is from Chicago. He's been in Vegas for about two and a half years. He came to town as a breakfast line cook at Bouchon in The Venetian, and he decided to pursue his own "fun idea to do" about a year ago. He opened the Lunch Box adjacent to UNLV in March 2009, serving up tasty hot dogs in the style of his hometown, and a few other styles, too.

The Lunch Box has evolved in a short time, mostly because of its location and because Moore is way open to new ideas.

"I'm young so it's easy for me to be here," he says. "It's easy to connect with students because I feel like I'm still part of that crowd. But it's definitely not like any other campus town. It doesn't have the same vibe of people just roaming about. But people are very welcoming to the idea of something local that they can watch transform, and stand behind it. That's the whole idea here, to build a little community in this area, so I've tried to pay attention to what people like and what their habits are."

That's how the glorious Chilean Dog was born, one of the most popular items on the menu. Moore serves Vienna Beef franks on soft, chewy buns from the local Great Buns Bakery. This dog, suggested by a student from Chile, tops it off with mustard and spicy mayo, tomato, sauerkraut and avocado. I'd never had avocado on a hot dog before.

"Neither had I," Moore says. It brings a creamy decadence to a supremely savory bite, and works surprisingly well with the tang of crisp 'kraut.

Speaking of decadence, the Lunch Box's dessert is a scratch-made Belgian waffle ice cream sandwich.

"I did waffles all the time at Bouchon, and I just wanted to create a portable way to eat a waffle," Moore says. "I thought, what's better than ice cream with a hot waffle? And it worked out so well. Some people come in just for that now. It's the aroma. You walk in and smell cinnamon."

The discipline and quality-driven approach the young cook learned on the Strip transfers well to his casual street food concept. "It's food with integrity. That's what I'm striving for." But that's not all. You can tell by the feel and the food that Moore is making an extra effort to connect with you, Las Vegas. He's recruited a local artist, Dominic Phelps, to create original visuals to help build the restaurant's identity. He makes the rounds at our town's coolest spots, from the Beat downtown to the Pinball Hall of Fame. And he has great taste in local eats, mentioning Chinatown's Ichiza, tapas hot spot Firefly and The Cosmopolitan's sorta-secret pizza place among his favorites.

Best of all, he's happy to be here, and that's what we need most.

"After being here a little while, you definitely hear about this lack of culture. But it's there, it's definitely there, if you are willing to look into it and connect with people," Moore says. "Las Vegas has really grown on me, and I didn't want to leave. It feels like the perfect place to get something started, like we are on the cusp of something great."

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