I usually walk into a restaurant with an unbiased mindset, but I was somewhat predisposed to enjoy The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen before it even opened.
Grilled cheese sandwiches are one of the universe’s most perfect comfort foods, after all. They are my go-to meal when I have no time or inclination to cook (along with quesadillas, which are just grilled cheese sandwiches with a Spanish accent). I wouldn’t want to live in a world without bread, cheese or butter. When they’re combined and the bread is toasted to a golden crisp? Cue the angel chorus.
The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen debuted in 2010 in San Francisco, the brain child of Heidi Gibson and Nate Pollack, who cashed in their savings to follow their cheesy dream. Ms. Gibson had won the national Grilled Cheese Invitational contest seven times, so they had that going for them. The couple’s fast-casual concept eventually topped Food & Wine magazine’s list of “Best Grilled Cheese in the U.S.,” and they literally wrote the book on the savory subject (“Grilled Cheese Kitchen: Bread + Cheese + Everything in Between”).
Steven Brown-Cestero opened the first franchise outside of the San Francisco Bay area in November in Marlins Plaza off Six Mile Cypress Parkway in South Fort Myers and reportedly plans to expand locally. How lucky are we?
Pretty lucky — though we should temper our enthusiasm by acknowledging that these gourmet grilled sammies come at a price. They run from $8 up to $11.50 — add another $4.50-$5.50 if you order fries. The price is partly due to fanciful and fancy fillings such as Laura Chenel chevre, lavender-basil pesto and chipotle butter. They use good-quality sourdough and whole grain breads, too, and even offer gluten-free bread. You can wash it all down with Tractor Beverage Co.’s organic, lightly carbonated soft drinks and uncarbonated haymaker punches with unique flavors such as lemongrass and mandarin-cardamom turmeric. And then there are the deep-fried brussels sprouts and the fresh green salads and the warm cookies with deliciously doughy centers.
They had me at “grilled cheese,” but they almost lost me at the ordering counter. My first-choice sandwich wasn’t available at lunch time; apparently, they still had some inventory issues a month after opening. Clearly having a bad day, the sales person was abrupt and muttered so badly that I could barely hear her over the dining room’s din. (She redeemed herself later by coming to our table to warn one of my pepper-sensitive friends not to try the brussels sprouts I ordered, which are seasoned with cayenne.)
The long, narrow storefront has high ceilings and concrete floors, with nothing to absorb noise — which is considerable even when it’s not busy. The furniture has a sort of studio look, with laminate tabletops mimicking rustic wood planks and lab-style stools made of steel tubing and hard Masonite seats that don’t encourage diners to sit around for long. Fortunately, we didn’t have to because our sizeable order was served within about 12 minutes.
A limited number of breakfast items are available all day, and if you’re into avocado toast you’ll probably like the avocado cheese toast ($5.50). Made with your choice of bread, it’s like a tartine made with warm, creamy avocado slices sort of welded to the toasted whole-grain bread by melted Jarlsberg. I wasn’t sure I would like avocado this way, but I quickly warmed to it.
There are 10 grilled cheese sandwich variations including a simple Cheddar-and-sourdough for children. At the other extreme is the Kim Cheesy ($11): Cheddar, Monterey jack, Korean spare rib, gochujang, Napa cabbage kimchi, scallions and sesame butter on sourdough. Again, I wondered how this would all come together but the crazy combination really paid off. The meat was tender and juicy, and the tangy heat of the fermented chili sauce and funky cabbage salad contrasted the richness of the cheeses. It may inspire me to be more adventurous with my own cheesy concoctions. I didn’t really pick up the sesame butter, but there was enough layers of flavor here that it didn’t matter.
The Club Turkey ($10) also had a lot going on, but the sandwiches overall were not so overstuffed that they were difficult to eat. This one boasted layers of Cheddar, creamy havarti, hickory-smoked turkey, juicy sliced tomatoes, stone-ground mustard and arugula on sourdough. Not as adventurous as the Kim Cheesy, but a solid choice, with peppery greens and hot mustard adding kick. You also can’t go wrong with the Mousetrap ($8), which oozed Tillamook Cheddar, creamy Havarti and Monterey jack. Each sandwich we sampled was uniformly golden and toasty.
Not to be missed among the sides are the crispy maple brussels sprouts ($6.50), beautifully caramelized and glazed with a mildly spicy, faintly sweet maple-cayenne-lemon dressing.
They’re not the main attraction but don’t dismiss the salads, which are $6 for a small bowl, $10 for a large. Bamboo’s Sesame Kale Salad is a riot of color, texture and flavor with several leafy greens and shredded cabbages, roasted red peppers, jicama, edamame and roasted cashews with a honey-sesame vinaigrette on the side. The Wrigley’s Citrus Salad is a lively mix of organic greens, juicy orange segments, creamy chèvre, toasted walnuts and radishes with a creamy citrus vinaigrette.
Despite the lofty prices, you have to give kudos to American Grilled Cheese Kitchen for filling a need we didn’t know we had for a restaurant devoted to grilled cheese.
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