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Commentary: Let the classic grilled cheese stand alone

Posted 9:04am on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013

Declaration of principles: A grilled cheese sandwich that has meat on it is not a grilled cheese. It's a hot sandwich with meat and cheese. I'm pretty sure that's called a "melt," people.

Now, I know I'm going to start something here, but has anyone else noticed that the new Lee's Grilled Cheese is barely about true grilled cheese?

Proper grilled cheese is a glorious, evenly melted sheet of cheese goo between two slices of bread, thin-ish ones so the ratio of cheese to bread stays just right.

I admit to a serious bias here: I'm a longtime vegetarian, and when Lee's Grilled Cheese moved into my neighborhood with its first brick and mortar shop after launching successfully as a food truck, I was anticipating meatless heaven -- a place where I could happily roam all over the menu.

But of nine specialty grilled cheeses on the menu, only two are meatless, and one of those has an overpowering pesto, plus tomatoes and spinach; the other is dessert, with apples, nutmeg, cinnamon and caramel. The rest come with pulled pork, rotisserie chicken, roast beef, etc.

You can "build your own," as I'm guessing most children do, and select just a cheese. OK, but thanks for putting me back at the kids' table. Or the vegetarian ghetto part of the menu. (Lee's isn't the only place doing meat-heavy grilled cheese, which I've seen on menus at Tillman's, Café Modern and now even Sonic as part of the trend of "elevated" comfort foods. Many of 'em don't need elevating, thanks.)

I know that only vegetarians and their loved ones will care much about this, but this illustrates much that's frustrating about eating meatless in restaurants. There's only one or maybe two menu choices (I'm incredibly bored with Caesar salads), and too often there's an alienating requirement that you ask for substitutions or have to have something special made.

Actually, meat has invaded traditional vegetarian food on restaurant menus in all kinds of ways. Especially at big chain restaurants, where salad menus will have six or eight options, nearly every one topped with salmon, chicken or beef. Sure, I can order one without meat, but then I'm paying $12 for just another bowl of lettuce. (At Houlihan's, one of seven entree salads is meatless; at BJ's Brewhouse, two of 10, just to pick on places near my house). Or the salad will be meatless, but the dressing is a bacon vinaigrette (I'm looking at you, Tillman's).

More: The fries at Brewed look great, and are adorable in chic cones, but they're made with duck fat. Was that necessary? Can you really not make killer fries that anyone can enjoy with their brew?

The change may stem partly from the annoying trendiness of fancy pork products. I'd love to try the vegetable of the moment, kale, at Woodshed, but the kale salad includes gianciale (pork cheek). And I now have to be vigilant even when ordering cocktails. At one of my Austin haunts, Frank's -- a gourmet hot dog joint -- the bloody mary, called the Red Headed Stranger, is made with bacon-infused vodka and comes with a strip of house-made bacon as a stirrer. Lots of places are adding chunks of pork to skewers that used to hold just olives.

On TV, although not in many local restaurants (yet), I've watched in horror as chefs put bacon in ice cream and other desserts.

Please. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's tired of having to fend off the meat in dishes that used to be as uncomplicated and welcoming as a gooey grilled cheese.

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