Order a sandwich and it comes with a foundational legend, the old story about John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who invented the portable meal that bears his name so he wouldn’t have to stop playing cards to take his nourishment.
The grilled cheese sandwich, sadly, carries no such memorable tale. While the combination of cheese and bread surely goes back to the Neolithic age, as best I can determine through extensive cookbook and Internet research, the American comfort-food standby evolved in its current form only within the past century. This filling yet low-cost Depression-era dinner was made possible by the happy pairing of two 20th century inventions: sliced bread and processed cheese. Cheese meets bread, hits skillet sizzling with melted butter or margarine, and a few moments later, lunch is on. A can of tomato soup can turn it into a banquet.
To view the grilled cheese sandwich living up to its full potential, however, one must consult the masters of the art at Lil Cheezers, a popular local food truck that added a bricks-and-mortar shop last month in tight but inviting quarters in the midst of the Baxter Avenue nightlife zone. (The Lil Cheezers food truck continues in operation, and a second is coming soon, proprietor and grilled-cheese chef Matt Davis says. The trucks serve limited selections from the sit-down eatery’s menu.)
The venue, a tiny shotgun house-turned-storefront, is clean and bright, the walls boldly painted the colors of Campbell’s tomato soup and Velveeta. I am not kidding about this.
The menu is made of finer stuff than those iconic ingredients, however. It’s all grilled cheese, all of the time, plus munchies, sides and desserts. There are 10 variations on the grilled cheese theme, all available on sourdough or wheatberry bread, ranging in complexity and price from $6 (for the “Plain Jane,” made with your choice of a dozen cheeses) to $8 (for many of the options). All come with a side and a dish of house-made curry ketchup, a thick, spicy red condiment that should make Heinz hang its head in shame.
Admirable creativity went into the bill of fare: The “Fancy Pants” ($8) musters Brie, Granny Smith apple slices, grilled onions and walnuts. The “Buenos Huevos” (“good eggs,” $7) lays down spicy Mexican chorizo sausage and a fried egg on your grilled cheese. Don’t bogart the “Legalize Marinara” ($7), a cross between grilled cheese and a pizza, loaded with pepperoni, mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and garlic. And so it goes, with something for just about everyone, including vegans, who’ll delight in a dairy-free model grilled with vegan cheese. Fountain drinks, Rooibee Red Tea and a selection of bottled beers are available.
Munchies for those late-night moments (or any other time) are mostly $3 for a small portion, $5 for large, include a half-dozen goodies such as sizzling, crisp fries or sweet-potato fries, fried mozzarella strips or house-made potato chips, served with curry ketchup or, for $2 more, a schmear of PBR beer cheese. There’s soup — tomato, of course, with basil added, or a soup of the day, $3 for a cup or $4 for a bowl. Add a dessert designed for the grill — S’mores, an Elvis-style PB and banana or a PB&J (all $4), or a Jamie’s 14K cupcake, keeping alive the spirit of the previous occupant, and you’ve got about everything anybody could ask for.
I was happy with the Caprese ($8), grilled mozzarella with fresh basil, rather pale tomato slices and a touch of sweet balsamic reduction, on my choice of sourdough with house-made chips. The sandwich was great. I would have liked the chips a little crunchier, but I admit I ate them all.
The Highlands Philly ($8) was a splendid sandwich, too, a good ration of thin-sliced roast beef, sautéed peppers and onions and molten cheddar — hold the Cheese Whiz — on wheatberry bread with fries. Soup of the day ($3 small), cucumber-cilantro, was chilled, green and surprisingly spicy.
With iced water, our comfort-food lunch came to $19.08, and the high-tech Square payment system built into an iPhone lets you tap to choose a 15, 20 or 25 percent tip.
Lil Cheezers Gourmet Grilled Cheese
938 Baxter Ave.
Panini, please. Thank you.
With the possible exception of Come Back Inn, Please & Thank You (800 E. Market St.) may be the only restaurant in the region named after Things Our Mother Told Us. The 78-RPM black recordings that form an integral part of its shtick take us back to our parents’ era, too. But the hip atmosphere of this corner storefront eatery and coffee shop is all 21st century NuLu.
I stopped in the other day on my way to get my locks shorn at another hip NuLu spot, Market Street Barbers (748 W. Market St., 589-0002) and made a quick lunch of the “Toasted” ($7.50), a sandwich of creamy mozzarella, herby pesto and spicy-hot peperonata mayo, pressed in a focaccia square on the panini grill. The bread-to-contents ratio was a bit high, but it was good bread and good contents. I ran into the Bar Belle there, nibbling a chocolate-chip cookie and sipping coffee (un-spiked — I checked), and she declared both excellent.