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Grilled cheese: a North Texas love story

Posted 7:45am on Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013

Like all good love stories do, this one starts at Dairy Queen.

Sitting in a bright red booth across from the girl I swore I was going to marry, I had my first Dairy Queen grilled cheese sandwich when I was in junior high. My then-girlfriend introduced me to it, this gooey, sticky sandwich made of melted American cheese and buttered toast. I still remember how the grease soaked through the checkerboard paper and how her fingers glistened with it; I thought it was kinda gross.

Years earlier, my mom had made a feeble attempt at getting me to eat one of these things. But we were a blue-collar family, and I ate like a blue-collar kid, which meant meat and potatoes, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, beef stew — hearty, filling, nap-inducing, completely unhealthy stuff. I wanted no part of that wimpy grilled cheese. What’s next, Mom? Salad, a glass of water?

Life’s a different story when there’s a cute girl in front of you, inviting you to take a bite of her sandwich. Because, of course, if you take a bite of that sandwich, the two of you will exchange rings and vows, move to a big house and never know a life of worry or failure.

“Yes, please,” said I, dumbed by love.

I nearly gagged. Then the buttery flavor of the toast kicked in, then the sharp flavor of the cheese, then the look in her big, brown eyes, waiting for approval. It wasn’t as good as my first hamburger from McDonald’s or my first burrito from Taco Plaza or my first slice of pepperoni from Pizza Inn. Despite the obvious amount of calorie intake and overall poor dining decision-making on my parents’ part, those are memories that rank right up there with my first car, first kiss and first show at Trees.

It was good, though. That bite would eventually turn into a lifelong love story. I ate DQ GCs on trips across the state with my father. I ate them with friends when we skipped school or had $2 to spend for lunch on Saturdays. When our house burned down, we moved to an apartment across the street from a Dairy Queen. For a while, I’d have one nearly every day.

This, to me, is the grilled cheese sandwich, the way it oughtta be, the way it was meant to be, simple and straightforward; this is the grilled cheese I fell in love with. Many of you do not agree, however. Many of you are discovering, or rediscovering, the grilled cheese — only YOUR grilled cheeses have twists. Bacon. Bread other than plain white. Vegetables. Cheeses with names other than “American” that most people cannot even pronounce. Lobster.

Lobster, really? I love lobster. Simple grilled cheese sandwich, I think maybe we need to talk.

‘Nostalgic experience’

Ashlee Kleinert remembers the reaction from friends and family when she told them about her idea.

“Laughter, honestly,” she says. “A lot of laughter. A lot of, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Why would you do this?’”

That was two years and three trucks ago. Today, Ruthie’s Rolling Café is one of North Texas’ most popular gourmet food trucks. Two Ruthie’s trucks are devoted to grilled cheese sandwiches; the third is devoted to crepes, although, Kleinert says, that truck can do grilled cheeses as well.

In launching Ruthie’s, Kleinert faced an uphill battle. The food truck trend hadn’t taken off in North Texas yet, but her bigger concern was whether people would go for gourmet grilled cheeses, made with artisan breads and topped with items such as pepperoni, bacon or caramelized onions.

So she did what a lot of people do now when they’re in need of immediate feedback: She posted something on Facebook.

“We actually created a Facebook page before the first truck even rolled out,” she says. “When the comments started coming in — ‘When do you open?’ ‘I can’t wait to have one of your ooey gooey grilled cheese sandwiches’ — we knew we were onto something.”

Ruthie’s was at the forefront of the grilled cheese craze that’s currently sizzling its way across North Texas. Grilled cheese sandwiches have always been part of the vernacular at roadside cafes and home-cooking joints. They are the quintessential reminders of youth, home and Saturday afternoons; eat your grilled cheese and then you can go out and play.

But something that was once banished to the backs and bottoms of menus is now finding a starring role at restaurants, both wheeled and not.

“I know this is going to sound like a cliché, but the grilled cheese sandwich really is the ultimate comfort food,” says Dena Peterson, executive chef at Café Modern at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “I’ve done a billion different kinds of grilled cheese, and you want to know why I’ve done a billion? Because people love them, just absolutely love them.”

Chefs like Peterson grew up eating grilled cheeses and are now weaving their pasts into their presents, reviving this once-forgotten dish with colorful new flavors, toppings and ingredients. On Peterson’s winter menu, she featured a grilled cheese made with locally sourced St. David’s raclette from Eagle Mountain Farmhouse, on sourdough. In the past, she has served grilled cheeses made with Double Gloucester, Danish Havarti, Herbed Boursin, brie, white Coastal Cheddar, taleggio and shaved prosciutto.

Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches can also be found at Lili’s Bistro, Chef Point Cafe, Park Hill Cafe, The Grape and other restaurants (see sidebar). The ultimate grilled cheese indulgence is, no doubt, the lobster grilled cheese, made with brie and provel, at the Stone Street Martini Lounge in downtown Dallas. It costs $16.

Check out our list of favorite places to get both classic and newfangled grilled cheese sammies in DFW.

“We had no idea this was coming,” Kleinert says. “We didn’t know this would become more popular or that it would turn into a restaurant trend. We just thought it would be a nostalgic experience for adults and that those adults could share it with their kids. And that’s what’s happened.”

A blank canvas

To truly gauge the popularity and comeback of the grilled cheese sandwich, take a short trip up Interstate 35 to north Fort Worth, to a little strip mall on North Tarrant Parkway. There you’ll find the grilled cheese business model to end all grilled cheese business models: Lee’s Grilled Cheese.

Two years ago, Lee Perez, his wife, Veronica, and their friend Keith Lee Weber were in their offices, trying to figure out what they were going to do next. They worked for a video game company that wasn’t doing very well; they knew pink slips could come any day.

“We thought about it and I said, ‘Our second passions in life, after video games, is eating, so let’s do something with that,’” Lee says. “Keith said he could make two things: hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. We went with grilled cheese sandwiches because, honestly, I’m about burgered out.”

The whim turned into a successful truck, the truck into a successful restaurant, which opened on New Year’s Eve 2012. On weekends, the line often spills out the door, all in the name of sandwiches such as the Back Breaker, made with pulled pork and mac and cheese; the TBCR, a combo of turkey, bacon, cheddar and house-made ranch; and the Italian, stacked with provolone, tomatoes, salami and ham.

“The great thing about the grilled cheese sandwich is it’s like a blank canvas,” says Lee Perez. “You can use cheeses that are mild. You can cheeses that are spicy. You can put vegetables on it, or turkey, or brisket or bacon. You can let your imagination run wild.”

As they did with their popular truck, the Lee’s owners have underestimated the power of their sandwiches. Their restaurant seats 50. That’s hardly enough space to accommodate its growing legion of fans. “We’re scouting for a second location,” Lee says. They’re also in the process of taking over the empty space next door, for additional seating.

The truck, for now at least, has been retired, Lee says. But a new grilled cheese truck, Gorgonzilla, has taken its spot at the Fort Worth Food Park. Started by Ramiro Ramirez and his sister Rosalia — the team behind the Salsa Limón trucks and storefront at La Gran Plaza mall, as well as a forthcoming brick-and-mortar — Gorgonzilla is already drawing huge weekend crowds.

Despite the fact that there are only three sandwiches on the menu, the staff can get overwhelmed. “It has been crazy. That’s really the only word I can use to describe it,” says Chris Kruger, onetime owner of the Fort Worth Food Park who recently joined the Gorgonzilla staff.

“We’re just getting started and business is already amazing,” he says. “I don’t think anyone expected it to take off like this. To me, it’s proof that people love grilled cheese sandwiches. They always have and they always will.”

Among grilled cheese lovers, there exists a faction of fans who, while applauding the evolution of the gourmet grilled cheese, cling to the notion that if your grilled cheese has more on it than cheese and bread, it’s not a grilled cheese at all.

“Sorry, but if you put a tomato on it or a piece of bacon, it’s not a grilled cheese anymore. It’s a patty melt or a press or something else,” says Darren Welch, a staunch grilled cheese lover who, on this day, is sitting at the counter at Highland Park Soda Fountain in Dallas, eating a grilled cheese sandwich with his 10-year-old son, Eric.

Commentary: Let the classic grilled cheese stand alone!

Welch has been coming to Highland Park Soda Fountain for grilled cheese sandwiches, served on Rainbo white bread, made in a sandwich press and a served with a handful of pickle chips, since he was a kid. “Been coming here for about 30, 35 years, ever since I can remember, really,” he says of the tiny counter café, which opened in 1912 as the Highland Park Pharmacy.

“My wife loves Ruthie’s. She goes there, I come here,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t like the new grilled cheeses. It’s just that I prefer the classic ones. It’s what I grew up with.”

Cheesy epilogue

We didn’t get married, my Dairy Queen girlfriend and I. I don’t remember who met someone else first.

Every once in a while, I’ll go to Dairy Queen and have a grilled cheese; I still get a little excited when it’s delivered to me, in a bright red basket, wrapped in grease-soaked paper. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about her and the things we said and did, and how we felt invincible, like all kids do.

But at 41, and 30 pounds overweight, I certainly can’t act like a kid every day. Grilled chicken, not cheese, is more my speed now, with brown rice, low carbs, low sugar and low/no just about everything I used to love.

So, a warning to you, young men of North Texas: Do not take that first bite of a grilled cheese, no matter how cute she is.

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