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