Smile and say, “Cheese!”

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Story by Dave Eckert

Welcome to National Grilled Cheese Month! In celebration, I braved thousands of calories in my quest for some of the best versions here in our hometown. What follows are some of my personal favorites, not all of which, by the way, classify as a traditional grilled cheese, which requires cheese to be the primary component of the sandwich. Anything else is technically a “melt.” I’ll leave that discussion for another time and place because this article isn’t about culinary technicalities, it’s about gooey, cheesy deliciousness!

Let’s start where I started, with the braised beef grilled cheese at Summit Grill. I had this gorgeous two-handed sandwich at the Summit in Gladstone, but fortunately, you can find them at all Summit locations. Executive Chef Po Wang lists the ingredients as: cheddar, provel, habanero-jack, American, and Swiss cheese, braised beef, and horseradish cream on grilled thick-cut ciabatta. Honestly, Wang had me at braised beef, which is the primary component of this sandwich, and a delicious component at that. “I think we have a cult following for that one. It’s been a staple on our menu from the  beginning,” Wang said. I can see, and taste, why. 

I ate half, boxed half, and headed down to sister restaurant, the Third Street Grill. I chose the Main Street location for convenience, and I’m glad I did. General Manager Stephen Krantz seems like a super-cool dude, the room has a great vibe, and the truffled grilled cheese with white cheddar, fontina, taleggio, black truffles, and truffle butter on toasted ciabatta was about as good as a sandwich can get. Not surprisingly, this is Wang’s favorite. “I do personally like the one from Third Street because I’m a fan of stinky cheeses-the stinkier, the better. So, I love the Tellegio. We also serve the grilled cheese with a creamy tomato soup for you to dip the sandwich!” Wang shared. I also love Tallegio, and I adore this sandwich and will return to this Third Street outpost early and often! Wang says both sandwiches are here to stay. “I wouldn’t, and can’t, take these off the menu. These will be on our core menu!”

After a one-day break, I returned to the Grilled Cheese Trail with a trip to the Country Club Plaza and the Granfalloon. There, I chatted with owner Tim Caniglia about his cult-worthy burnt end grilled cheese. I thought the braised beef at Summit was over the top. That is until I caught a glimpse and took a bite of this monster. “That came from Michael, our chef, who is now working in Denver, but still helps us with all the new menu items. I would have never thought of putting burnt ends on a grilled cheese sandwich, but Michael said, ‘Give it a try.’ I did, and I knew immediately that we had a winner,” Caniglia told me. The sandwich is not so much a grilled cheese as a burnt end sandwich with cheese, but let’s not pick nits as the bottom line is it’s frickin’ delicious! “No doubt, it’s one of the most popular items on the menu, In fact, we have these three guys who come in all the time for it. We don’t even give them menus. We just bring them the sandwiches,” Caniglia said. That might just be me, too as that burnt end sammie is to die for!

After a calorie-ladened few days, I gave my arteries a couple days off before I hopped back on the grilled cheese pony and galloped down to 119th Street for a visit with the grilled cheese whisperer, Robert Duensing, at his outpost for all things creative and delicious, Best Regards Bakery and Café. I did a story with Duensing and his grilled cheese masterpieces several years ago when he got famous for his five different homemade breads and 11 different cheeses. “At the time, we could make more than 52-million types of grilled cheese with all of the various combinations. That really put us on the map,” Duensing stated. I remembered that, and how delicious the grilled cheeses were. I was eager to see how things had progressed, and not at all surprised how much work, imagination, and creativity Duensing had put into his grilled cheese 2.0! “I basically used the first nine months of the Covid epidemic to research and retool what we were doing, and that included the grilled cheese. I came up with new thicker bread and some pretty amazing new flavor combinations,” Duensing shared.

Did he ever! Duensing features five grilled cheeses on his menu these days. He had two prepared for me. The first was an unbelievably gooey, slightly spicy, and supremely satisfying sandwich featuring Duensing’s house-made pimento cheese. The second sported Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese and bacon from Paradise Locker Meats. The pimento cheese version was great, and a definite house favorite, but the combination of Tillamook, which is one of my favorite cheese producers, and the Paradise bacon, one of my favorite local butchers, was over-the-top terrific! I can’t wait to return.

My next visit brough me back into the city and the terrific breakfast and lunch place, Urban Café. I’d heard through the grapevine that owner and Executive Chef Justin Clark had been turning heads and pleasing palates with a lobster grilled cheese. This, I had to see, and taste! “Everybody was doing lobster mac ‘n cheese, so I thought I’d do something a little different. We do three different cheeses-a goat cheese with a shot of Cognac, cheddar, and provolone,” Clark told me. Clark said he came up with the idea while doing catering for a nearby medical building. Everyone there seemed to love the lobster grilled cheese, so Clark figured the customers at Urban Café would too. He was right. The sandwich is one of the most popular items on the menu, and Clark says he’d lose business if he ever took it off the menu. “They love the lobster grilled cheese. I mean, who doesn’t love grilled cheese? It’s crispy, cheesy, warm and filling. It’s just plain tasty!” Clark exclaimed. You speak the truth, Justin. You speak the truth. It’s yummy!

My culinary spidey sense had also been detecting some grilled cheese deliciousness at The Restaurant at 1900. This classy eatery is under the direction of Executive Chef Linda Duerr, whom I have known since her days back at the original J.J.’s on the Plaza. Duerr’s grilled cheese creation,  was on the menu for the restaurant’s opening four years ago before making a triumphant return about a year ago. The sandwich consists of spinach, artichoke, Cottonwood River aged cheddar, and a killer porcini garlic jam. Served with a giant house salad, this is more than a grilled cheese sandwich-it’s a grilled cheese meal and masterpiece. “We tried other grilled cheese sandwiches, but we returned to this one ‘cause it’s just so good. I mean, it’s hands down the best of all the grilled cheeses we’ve tried,” Duerr told me. “I like changing things up, but this is the one everyone wants.” Duerr credits the porcini jam for the sandwich’s success, which is savory and amazingly complex. Whatever-from the aged cheddar, and other cheeses Duerr would not reveal, to the spinach and artichoke, to the jam, to the Farm to Market bread, it all works, and amazingly well!

Next up, a stop at Taps on Main, a favorite watering hole and eatery of mine. Known for their excellent selection of craft brews and their authentic Buffalo-style chicken wings, Taps has entered the grilled cheese arena with a serious contender-a bbq pork grilled cheese. “We take our house-smoked pulled pork and top it with homemade Carolina BBQ sauce, pickles, and white American cheese, and stack it all on sourdough bread. It’s quickly becoming one of our most popular sandwiches,” co-owner Grant Tower said.

Tower came up with the idea for the sandwich with chef Deon Hence. “The pulled pork grilled cheese gives you every flavor you need, even if it doesn’t give you every flavor you want. You don’t have to love every specific ingredient. It gives you all flavor profiles in one bite-sweet, smoky, salty, and tartness, which, as a chef, is exactly what you want to do,” Hence said. Hence also says the sandwich is filling because everything in it is filling. I can confirm that as I was only able to consume half during a recent visit. “Everybody has sandwiches, but to have something eclectic like this is unique. We’re about the only place in town using a Carolina barbecue sauce It’s not an easy thing to work with, but it really completes this sandwich,” Hence added. Amen.

From a new grilled cheese option to one that’s been around a while, I’ll finish my grilled cheese sandwich roundup at Westside Local. Always a popular spot, Westside Local has been pleasing diners with their perfectly griddled three cheese sandwich served with a cup of tomato soup for dipping and your choice of sides: fries, tots, house-made chips, or deviled eggs (yes, I said deviled eggs!) for years. General Manager Nicki Snyder told me she’s not sure exactly when the Brie, Emmentaler, and White Cheddar creation was added to the menu, but can’t see anyway it will ever leave the menu. “It’s everything people want. It’s so rich and creamy. The bread is perfectly crispy, and the tomato soup is fresh with lovely acidity to cut through the creaminess of the cheese. People love it in the winter, People love it in the summer. They love it all year round,” Snyder stated. “Honestly, if we took it off the menu, I think there would be a riot.” I’m not a violent person, but having recently tried the Westside Local grilled cheese, I can see that. I can’t wait to return and have it again! Maybe after my Lipitor kicks in!  

Happy National Grilled Cheese Month everyone!

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