The Grilled Cheese Challenge
Can a Cheese Sandwich Served in a Parking Lot Be Worth 10 Bucks?
Not too long ago, Seattle was the type of backwater that lacked a food truck scene, let alone a truck dedicated to grilled cheese sandwiches. Now we have three: Monte Cristo, Cheese Wizards, and the Grilled Cheese Experience (though the Grilled Cheese Experience went on hiatus for the holidays and, as of press time, has not yet gotten rolling again). They all serve up grilled cheeses at around $10 each after tax. Assuming that the sandwiches do not come seasoned with powdered unicorn horns, this seemed a bit steep, so I assembled a tasting panel to see how the city's two currently active grilled cheese trucks compared to a good ol' homemade grilled cheese.
Monte Cristo: The "Full Monte" Cristo
We got the namesake sandwich, the "Full Monte" Cristo, and a sandwich called For the Love of Cheese. The tasting panel responded to the Full Monte thusly: "This is fucked up, but really good. This shit is crazy." It was indeed a crazy sandwich: Canadian bacon melted with a cheese blend on egg-battered cinnamon brioche toast, dusted with powdered sugar and spritzed with lime. I would have called it the "Type 2 Diabetes," but then, I'd be horrible at marketing.
The For the Love of Cheese was a cheese clusterfuck: Samish Bay Cheese's chive Ladysmith, aged Gouda, and labneh with peach/jalapeño chutney, plus a smoky, thick fondue for dipping. The smoky, thick fondue did an excellent job of making everything that touched it taste like smoky, thick fondue, which served to neutralize the woefully out-of-place chutney.
The sandwiches were both tasty, but almost comically opulent. It was certainly easy to see why they cost $10 apiece, what with local, organic ingredients; a name chef (Danielle Custer of TASTE at SAM); and a snazzy (if a little cheesy) truck.
Cheese Wizards: The Voldemortadella
I visited Cheese Wizards with high hopes. I arrived five minutes before opening, expecting to see them bustling to set up. Twenty minutes later, they arrived. Whatever magical powers the Wizards might have, they lack one very important one: power steering. I spent 20 more freezing minutes watching the hapless Wizard in charge of piloting their truck wrestle his way into a space. Once the truck was in place and the Wizards had uttered a hasty incantation of prep, I ordered.
I was pleased to discover that the mortadella in the Voldemortadella was in exactly the right proportion to the bread and cheese, not merely a superfluous meaty flourish. The Wizard who had previously struggled with parking had much less trouble with customer service, offering me a free sample of their excellent tomato soup and recommending that I try the curry ketchup. Much to my delight, I discovered that you could actually taste the curry in it.
Our other sandwich was a pear-chutney-and-Brie combo on pumpernickel called the Critical Hit. Not a hit. The tasters felt that the Brie was lost between the thick slices of pumpernickel and mealy chutney. The chutney felt like a token apology, meant to justify the price tag rather than enhance the sandwich. Also, the sweet/savory grilled cheese horse is dead and being beaten ruthlessly. Sure, if you are putting all your eggs in one truck, so to speak, you've got to do more than just grilled American on white, but you can upscale things significantly without straying so problematically far from the basic formula.
The $5 Homemade Option: The Hunstman Sees God
It doesn't seem fair to compare a sandwich from a truck that uses artisan cheese, makes duck confit, and has overhead costs to one you make at home with cheddar and pre-sliced bread. To compensate for this inequity, I used fancy cheese and fancy bread sourced from Pike Place Market. Also, the tasting panel was fiending for bacon. Sandwich #1 was Huntsman cheese—Double Gloucester infused with bands of Stilton—on Essential Baking Company's rosemary diamante, dredged lightly in olive oil. Sandwich #2 was the bacony one: I fried a couple thick slabs of Sea Breeze Farm smoked bacon, removed them from the pan, and drained off a bit of the grease. The bacon then joined a garlicky aged English cheddar on Tall Grass Bakery's hearty whole-wheat sourdough, and the whole sandwich was returned to its sizzling bacon-grease bath.
The first bite of sandwich #1 elicited an "Oh my God" from the entire panel. It was exactly what we were craving: a gooey, salty, cheese-centric sandwich. The second was less successful: The bread was too thick, which rendered the bacon moot.
Even with the pricey ingredients, the homemade sandwiches rang in at a little less than $5 per sandwich. So is the $10 you pay for the privilege of waiting in the freezing-ass cold in a parking lot for a grilled cheese from a truck really worth it? I'm inclined to say no. I realize that food trucks are an exciting development in the Seattle food world, but even with esoteric ingredients, a grilled cheese is just comfort food—and there's nothing more comforting than making one at home, exactly the way you like it.