Back in the day, the best way to find great restaurants was to look for the parking lots with the most cars. It’s still a good idea to keep your eyes peeled on parking lots, but these days smart shoppers look for parked food trucks with the longest lines for a taste of the new and unusual.
Top chefs sometimes man the busiest food vending vehicles selling creative dishes at discounted prices. Make no mistake, those with grilled cheese, which can be replicated at home, are not serving your mother’s version.
An award-winning truck that started in Southern California, called The Original Grilled Cheese Truck, for example, fills grilled cheese with macaroni and cheese as well as slices of Tillamook sharp Cheddar, American cheese, caramelized onions and slow-roasted barbecue pork. Your first thought might be, why would you want starch inside of starch, but long lines don’t lie. In fact, Time Out Los Angeles, a city guide, crowned the grilled cheese truck winner of its “Grilled Cheese Meltdown.”
If you want to give their award-winning sandwich a try, you may be in for a treat. Chef-owner Dave Danhi says he’s about to open his first brick-and-mortar store in Maryland, and he plans for his company to go public on the New York Stock Exchange soon. At this time you can also find his sandwiches at Los Angeles International Airport at a kiosk that looks like a food truck as well as from a cart rolling around in Manhattan.
Also in New York City, the popular Gorilla Cheese NYC food truck has made inroads with a grilled triple-cream Brie with Prosciutto di Parma and strawberry preserves on white bread. Gorilla Cheese also bakes a cinnamon Cheddar apple pie melt for dessert.
Better Than Mom’s
Tom + Chee started with a food tent in Cincinnati and grew to building locations in 14 states after appearing on the television show Shark Tank and gaining funding from investor Barbara Corcoran for their grilled cheese doughnuts. Yes, doughnuts. The Tom + Chee folks horizontally cut doughnuts in half, place Cheddar cheese in the middle of the pastry with the cut-side facing out and griddle the doughnuts until browned and the cheese melts. Besides grilled cheese doughnuts, Tom + Chee prepare a decadent s’more grilled cheese with Mascarpone, chocolate and graham crackers.
In Princeton, NJ, Say Cheez is one of the college town’s popular brick-and-mortar restaurants that promises to best your mother’s grilled cheese with their “The Glazed Haze,” grilled Cheddar and Pepper Jack on a glazed doughnut. Say Cheez also makes a macaroni-and-cheese grilled cheese stuffed with brisket and gravy.
Down the road in Hopewell, NJ, at The Brothers Moon restaurant, chef Will Mooney follows the trend of serving local when possible in the Garden State. Mooney’s grilled cheese features Toma cheese, which is made nearby, with a bit of braised short rib.
In San Francisco at Parc 55 by Hilton, chef Mary Cronander, loads her grilled cheese with braised Australian lamb leg and Tomme cheese with numerous trendy ingredients, such as gochujang, a spicy Korean condiment, and sumac, a sour Middle Eastern spice, in her not-so-“secret” sauce that’s a garlic mayonnaise. She also includes house-made tapenade with puréed blue-cheese-stuffed olives, anchovies, garlic, capers and lemon juice in her lamb grilled cheese.
Chef Greg Atkinson of Restaurant Marché, located on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, says his Gruyère grilled cheese on house-baked challah is “so insanely popular that I sometimes want to take it off the menu so that the ladies who lunch will try something else.”
Kids, Try This At Home
Most of the sandwiches from trucks are easy enough to replicate at home. The only rule is to be sure the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted.
The trick to making a macaroni and cheese grilled cheese, according to chef Danhi, is to chill the mixture so it congeals and can be placed between two slices of bread. He uses a thin slice of the cold noodle dish made with medium-size noodles so the cheese fills the center of the tubes, he says.
Let’s face it, many home cooks are not going to go through that kind of trouble for a quick noontime meal, unless they wisely made a big batch of mac and cheese ahead of time and planned on having leftovers. Making a sandwich with roasted meat also makes sense if you have leftovers. In fact, grilled cheese sandwiches are a great place to use up many sorts of scraps in the kitchen. Plus, there is no need to keep flavors to the inside of your sandwich; feel free to coat the outside of the bread with cheese or spices, such as smoked paprika, pepper and fennel seeds.
The extent of grilled cheese variations is only limited by your culinary creativity.
Inside Out Grilled Cheese
This grilled cheese is based on the classic, but we grill some of the cheese on the outside of the bread and add smoked paprika and Gouda for a new take on the sandwich.
Yield: two sandwiches
½ avocado, sliced
3-4 slices ripe tomato
1/8 tsp smoked paprika
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
4 oz Cheddar cheese, shredded, 1 1/3 cups
4 slices thick, hearty white bread
2 Tbsp minced scallion top, green part only, or chives
4 thick slices smoked Gouda cheese, 4 oz
Season avocado and tomato with paprika, salt and pepper. Put two spoonfuls of the Cheddar cheese in two mounds in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Top cheese with two slices of bread, equal amounts of the remaining Cheddar cheese, scallions, avocado, tomato and Gouda. Finish with the last slice of bread, and lightly press down with a spatula.
Flip the sandwich when the cheese browns, in about 3 minutes, and brown on second side, for about 2 minutes longer.
Jersey Girl’s Breakfast Grilled Cheese
People from New Jersey love their pork roll breakfast sandwiches, but if the meat isn’t available in your part of the country replace it with a favorite ham.
Yield: one sandwich
½ thick slices pork roll or a couple of slices of ham
½ Tbsp butter
2 oz shredded Cheddar cheese, 2/3 cup
2 slices thick, hearty white bread, crusts trimmed
1 large slice ripe tomato, preferably a beefsteak, sprinkled with salt and fresh-ground pepper
1 pan-fried egg, optional
1 thick slice Provolone cheese, 1 oz
Brown the pork roll or ham in a small non-stick pan with half of the butter over medium-high heat, about 4 minutes per side. Remove the pork. Wipe out pan and then add remaining butter, one slice of bread, topped with the Cheddar cheese, browned pork roll or ham, tomato, optional egg and Provolone cheese.
Finish with the last slice of bread and lightly press down with a spatula. Flip when the cheese browns, about 3 minutes, and brown on second side, for about 2 minutes.