Photo by Ron Jasin

August 21, 2013

Tom+Chee does it on a donut … or not

What doesn’t go better on a donut?

As I write this, I am still faintly aquiver with the sensory memory of a childhood pleasure, the s’more — that classic combination of crisp, slightly sweet graham cracker set with a couple squares of Hershey bar, topped with the melty, sugary, caramelized joy of a fire-roasted marshmallow just hot enough to melt the milky chocolate … and then, the pièce de résistance, the crème de la crème, all this goodness squished between halves of a sizzling, seductively greasy grilled donut. Mmmmm, dooooonuts.

I bet you think I’m at the State Fair.

Nope! No longer need one wait for fair season in August to enjoy the calorific deliciousness of everything-on-a-donut. Now you can get a variety of donut treats year-round — and much more, too — thanks to the arrival of Cincinnati’s no-longer-local eatery Tom+Chee.

It’s too soon to call this outfit a “chain.” Better to say it’s moving in the same entrepreneurial direction as, say, Louisville’s Boombozz Pizza or Heine Bros. Coffee: quality and ambition breeding business success but with geographically contained units still not too numerous to count on your fingers.

Cincy food guys Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward quickly grew their invention into three shops there. Now, with local franchiser Rich Tinsley, the venture here has grown to three in just over a year, and this spring they nabbed $600,000 from ABC’s “Shark Tank” to take it national. Louisville’s initial entry on Bardstown Road seems to be thriving despite its competitive proximity to such landmarks as Sapporo, Uptown Café, the Bristol and the throbbing heartbeat of Restaurant Row.

An outlet near U of L soon followed, likely lured by the typical student’s large appetite and eager acceptance of good cheap eats. Last month, Tom+Chee’s bright Campbell’s Soup red-and-white colors popped up in St. Matthews, sharing parking space with Spinelli’s, to offer peckish adventurers in the inner-suburban club zone a tasty dining alternative to the strip’s remarkable collection of pizzerias.

Offering a broad selection that starts with the simple, nostalgic combo of grilled American on white ($3.50) and classic tomato soup ($2 with a sandwich) and moves on to build-your-own options, plus some 20 sandwich specialties ($4 to $6), Tom+Chee has something for just about everyone.

Carb-loading? Enjoy a grilled mac-and-cheese ($5.50). Meat lovers might go with grilled bacon and bleu ($5.50), the turkey-and-bacon Flying Pig ($6), a grilled deli loaded with roast beef, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and onion plus dill chips on wheat ($5.50), and many more. Consider, for example, the Armagoetta ($6), a spicy concoction using goetta, the Queen City’s version of scrapple or head cheese, with hot peppers and spicy jack cheese, a concoction that perhaps only a homesick Cincinnatian could love.

There’s plenty for vegetarians, including the basic meat-free grilled cheese and soup; and even finicky vegans who shun all dairy products can happily chow down on the cream-free tomato soup and a grilled “cheez” sandwich made with a vegan alternative.

Don’t forget the donuts! Make it savory or make it sweet, at $3.50 for a simple grilled cheddar on a donut or $4.50 for any of about 10 donut-based delights like the aforementioned s’more, a variety of fruit-and-cheese choices, or the barely-legal-for-minors Mint Julep made with cream cheese and mint and a dash of Woodford Reserve ($4.50). Or go for the gusto and belt out a chorus of “Hound Dog” with The King, Elvis’ beloved peanut-butter and banana married with sweet mascarpone cheese and gooey mozzarella. On a donut!

I figured I had better shoot over to the St. Matthews location and check it out before it goes too corporate, and I was happy to find a friendly welcome, a pleasant environment and good quality, fairly priced noms.

The three tomato soups ($2 with a sandwich, $3 for a cup à la carte or $4.50 for a bowl) all appear to be variations on a theme: Chunky tomato basil is a rich, red potion full of chunks of sweet tomato from the can, laced with aromatic dried basil. Classic tomato buzzes the chunks into a puree; creamy tomato basil keeps the chunks and adds cream. They’re all good, and the soup of the day, beer cheese, sounded inviting, too.

The Beef+Cheddar sandwich ($5), pardon the expression, beefs up the basic sandwich with thin-sliced deli beef and caramelized red onions, mounted on thick dark rye.

I couldn’t resist the Hippy+Chee ($4.50), which the guy behind the counter praised as his favorite. This one adds texture to the basic cheddar and makes it seem almost healthy by dressing it up with fresh mixed lettuces, sliced cucumber, tomato and a dab of hummus on light grilled wheat.

As for the s’more-on-a-donut dessert, nothing more needs to be said than “Mmmmm.”

Our nostalgic, filling repast came to a reasonable $18.82, plus a few bucks for the tip jar.

 

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