Amuse-bouche Lau­rel Gladden goes on a grilled­cheese spree; two non-cheesy books about cheese

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Lau­rel Gladden

FEW things are more iconic, el­e­men­tal, and pri­mally com­fort­ing than the grilled cheese sand­wich. The tra­di­tional Amer­i­can-on-white ver­sion — that mag­i­cal com­bi­na­tion of bread, cheese, and but­ter — is a de­li­cious clas­sic, pop­u­lar since Won­der be­gan sell­ing loaves of sliced bread and Kraft in­tro­duced the sliced sin­gle. With its soft melted cheese, golden-brown crust, and ir­re­sistible but­tery warmth, the grilled cheese is a sand­wich most of us have spent our lives know­ing and lov­ing.

Cre­ative cooks have al­ways looked for ways to im­prove on — and zhuzh up — stan­dard dishes, and the grilled cheese sam­mich is no ex­cep­tion. Mul­ti­ple restau­rants and cafés around town (Clafoutis, The French Pas­try Shop, and Choco­late Maven, to name a few) serve panini, melts, and the glam­orous god­par­ents of the grilled cheese, the croque mon­sieur and madame. Many kitchens give the clas­sic a grown-up spin, adding high­brow cheese and, if you’ll par­don the pun, up­per-crust in­gre­di­ents like pesto, caramelized onions, and chile.

A grilled cheese by any of these other names is still a grilled cheese, though, and ul­ti­mately, some are sim­ply bet­ter than oth­ers, no mat­ter how much tweak­ing you do. Over the last few months, I ex­plored menus and ta­bles all over Santa Fe, un­cov­er­ing a broad spec­trum of de­li­cious op­tions and var­ied com­bi­na­tions around town.

Top­ping the list of “grown-up” ver­sions is Cow­girl (319 S. Guadalupe St., 505-982-2565), whose Say Cheese! “gourmet” sand­wich gilds the grilled-cheeselily to the max with its uber-rich com­bi­na­tion of sharp ched­dar, Gouda, Brie, caramelized onions, toma­toes, and pesto on thick, well-but­tered and grid­dle-browned sour­dough. I have a healthy ap­petite, but I couldn’t man­age to eat more than half in one sit­ting, much less tackle the ac­com­pa­ny­ing moun­tain of fries.

The Tom & Mozza Melt at Pala­cio Café II (227 Don Gas­par Ave., 505-820-7888) — and at the orig­i­nal Pala­cio Café, at 209 E. Palace Ave. — strays about as far from the dyed-in-the-wool grilled cheese as I could jus­tify — it’s part of an en­tire sec­tion of cheese-pos­sess­ing panini on their menu. Here, fresh moz­zarella shares the soft, rich fo­cac­cia stage with lay­ers of roasted red pep­pers, fresh tomato, deep­green and pep­pery arugula, and pesto mayo.

The menu at Choco­late Maven (821 W. San Ma­teo Road, 505-984-1980) in­cludes a por­to­bello melt — an elab­o­rate sand­wich, with pro­volone, grilled mush­rooms, roasted red pep­pers, shaved red onion, toma­toes, and chipo­tle aioli. Though fla­vor­ful and deca­dent, I found it too rich, creamy, and messy over­all. Their grilled “farm­house” ched­dar, on the other hand, of­fers a well-bal­anced and ad­dic­tive blend of ched­dar, grilled onions, and tomato on re­spectable sour­dough bread, cut to the ideal thick­ness.

At Arable (7 Avenida Vista Grande, Suite B-6, El­do­rado, 505-303-3816), the grilled cheese is a menu main­stay. On our re­cent visit, the combo con­sisted of pesto, tomato aioli, sliced heir­loom toma­toes, Ta­leg­gio, and fresh moz­zarella, but now that au­tumn has ar­rived, you might ex­pect to see some­thing along the lines of last fall’s sea­sonal com­bi­na­tion: caramelized onion jam, green chile ap­ple but­ter, and Gruyère sauce. As luck would have it, on the rainy night we stopped by, the soup of the day was tomato, al­low­ing us to cre­ate one of the all-time top com­fort-food com­bos.

Box­car (530 S. Guadalupe St., 505-988-7222) adds Hatch green chile to ched­dar, Swiss, moz­zarella, and their thick, soft, mildly sweet house-made bread to make their sig­na­ture “adult” grilled cheese. As is the case for many of these sand­wiches, you can fan­cify yours for an up­charge — with, say, ba­con or mush­rooms. Pun­gently gar­lic-laden, Box­car’s thick, starchy steak fries (one of sev­eral sides you can choose from) also seem tar­geted at grown-ups.

Santa Fe Bar & Grill (187 Paseo de Per­alta, 505-982-3033) serves one of the most col­or­ful sand­wiches on the list, with mild black bread em­brac­ing your fa­vorite cheese (in my case, ched­dar, tangy and bright or­ange), ruby tomato slices, vividly emer­ald pesto, and a no­tice­able schmear of mayo. In case you find your­self in the neigh­bor­hood of San Fran­cisco Street Bar & Grill (50 E. San Fran­cisco St., 505-9832044), their menu in­cludes nearly iden­ti­cal sand­wich, though I can’t tes­tify to its tasti­ness.

The grilled cheese at Harry’s Roadhouse (96-B Old Las Ve­gas High­way, 505-989-4629) is chic and bal­anced. Sharp sa­vory Cabot ched­dar is an ex­cel­lent foil for the al­most candy-sweet caramelized onions, and nose-tick­ling mus­tard (served on the side — in my opin­ion un­nec­es­sar­ily) gives it all a com­pelling zing.

A word to the cheese-wise: The so-called grilled cheese at To­m­a­sita’s (500 S. Guadalupe St., 505-983-5721) is more a might­ily meaty roast beef sand­wich, with some cheese and green chile thrown in for good mea­sure — not that there’s any­thing wrong with that. If you share, you might have room to en­joy what I dis­cov­ered to be some of the best fries in town. By the way, the menu at Atrisco Café & Bar (in the DeVar­gas Cen­ter, 193 Paseo de Per­alta, 505-983-7401) — un­der the same own­er­ship um­brella — of­fers a sim­i­lar sand­wich, more ac­cu­rately call­ing it a grilled roast beef with a choice of cheese.

Of course, the French Pas­try Shop (100 E San Fran­cisco St., in La Fonda, 505-983-6697) serves the Old World stal­warts, croque madame and mon­sieur, but also a French grilled cheese. It marched its way to tri­om­phe near the top of my list with its soft grid­dled baguette, lightly mashed; flinty Swiss cheese; thin slices of fresh tomato; briny sliced black olives; and a dust­ing of herbs. Like so many other things in life, it’s only im­proved by a soupçon — or a slather­ing — of Di­jon.

The menu at Ma­ca­li­cious (226 N Guadalupe St., 505-557-6495) isn’t lim­ited to pasta, also of­fer­ing four grilled cheeses in vary­ing de­grees of em­bel­lish­ment. Even their Clas­sic, though, verges on the sur­real, with what must be a quar­ter pound of ched­dar, Jack, and Amer­i­can cheeses spilling out of too-thick slices of but­tery white bread.

Over in the straight­for­ward-sand­wich cat­e­gory is the beloved Pantry (1820 Cer­ril­los Road, 505-986-0022). Their Amer­i­can-on-sour­dough ver­sion (we were of­fered a choice of bread but not cheese) was as close to the ur-grilled-cheese as you can get — though the menu prom­ises tomato, ours ar­rived with­out it, and we didn’t miss it. It’s a steal at $6.99 (in my school-cafe­te­ria-sen­ti­men­tal book, the choice of curly fries is worth that price of ad­mis­sion on its own).

New York Deli (420 Ca­tron St., 505-982-8900) of­fers a ba­sic grilled cheese plus a revved-up ver­sion with gen­er­ous nub­bins of thick, meaty ba­con. Its cheese-to-bread ra­tio is ideal; the rye (my choice) had a pleas­ant chewi­ness, and its car­away tang made for a nice change of pace. Our sand­wich was prac­ti­cally buried in a mound of noo­dle-like match­stick fries, but is that re­ally ever a bad thing?

Joe’s Din­ing (2801 Rodeo Road, 505-471-3800) is as close to a tra­di­tional diner as we’ve got in Santa Fe these days, with a warm, wel­com­ing vibe, black and white tiles, and bright red up­hol­stered seats. Their of­fer­ing to the grilled cheese gods in­cludes bright-red tomato, just the right amount of your cho­sen cheese (ched­dar, in my case), and a gen­er­ous dose of mayo on your fa­vorite bread (this time sweet, nutty whole wheat). It’s a clas­sic and sat­is­fy­ing sand­wich, though ours was served solo — no fries or chips or slaw.

The grilled cheese sand­wich is prob­a­bly most at home along­side a bowl of tomato soup, and the folks at The Kitchen Win­dow (in the De­sign Cen­ter; 418 Cer­ril­los Road, Suite 6; 505-982-0048) know that. They reg­u­larly of­fer that iconic pair­ing, with a sweet, well-emul­si­fied, rust-red soup and a dou­ble-decker ched­dar-jack-and-Amer­i­can “club” that’s well­but­tered and thor­oughly smashed on the grid­dle. The menu-men­tioned green chile is mild to the point of be­ing un­no­tice­able.

My fa­vorite? It’s at Plaza Café South­side (3466 Za­farano Drive, 505-424-0755). Toe­ing the line be­tween fa­mil­iar and fancy, it be­gins with uni­fy­ing, in­ten­si­fy­ing green-chile-ched­dar bread, per­fectly gold­en­grilled. To mildly salty ched­dar it adds zesty but not over­pow­er­ing green-chile-tomato salsa, the dices of which elim­i­nate the com­mon, slightly messy “prob­lem” I en­coun­tered else­where, of whole tomato slices mak­ing a slip­pery es­cape from their breadly bonds with each bite.

Ul­ti­mately, each of us has our own ideas about what makes a per­fect grilled cheese. Whether you’re an Amer­i­can-with-mayo-on-white or a ched­dar-and-chile-on-cia­batta per­son, whether you just re­lo­cated to the City Dif­fer­ent or were born here all your life, rest as­sured that at least one Santa Fe kitchen has a grilled cheese sand­wich for you. Let’s face it: The days when we need com­fort seem more com­mon than not lately, and when it feels like few things pro­vide a true balm for the soul, maybe a grilled cheese can.

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