Grilled cheese is the queen of sandwiches. Say what you will about its simplicity, its lack of intrinsic finesse (only rule: don’t burn), but it is precisely this lack of complexity that makes it perfect. Grilled cheese is tabula rasa—a blank slate onto which can be written anything (a love song for a hundred cheeses, a lust for tomatoes or bacon, a treatise on the comforts of childhood, of moms and dads, of easier times or poverty or innovation)—and that is what makes it so beloved. The grilled cheese sandwich demands nothing, but there isn’t much you can add to a grilled cheese sandwich that will ruin it (broken glass, gum, broccoli). It is, as it is, ideal. But infinitely customizable.
And it’s precisely this vast ocean of potential that makes a place like Meltkraft (the new stand-alone location on 17th Street) worth visiting, It’s just grilled cheese, sure, but grilled cheese matters more to me than a thick steak, a skate wing, a lobster tail. Even with this job, grilled cheese is more present in my life than those things. I’ve eaten a thousand grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ve had opinions on all of them. And so, here is a ranked list of the best things about the new Center City Meltkraft.
1) That moment when you first try to separate the two halves of a sandwich (particularly the three-cheese Classic, particularly when it’s just a minute or two out of the sandwich press) and the cheese pulls and stretches into those long, drooping fronds. We often judge trashy, awesome, street-corner pizza the same way—visually, by the stretchiness of the cheese. It’s a signifying moment. And no one who takes grilled cheese seriously doesn’t first see how far the cheese will stretch.
2) The Somerset is, to me, the best example of the tricked-out grilled cheese—the grilled cheese with some historical presence. It’s essentially a Cuban sandwich without the awesome, crusty, larded bread, made with aged gruyère, slices of ham, cornichon pickles and the sharp bite of a little mustard. The cornichons come chopped into little chunks, which is a bit texturally … odd, but they’re still better than pickle slices (which would go limp and mushy in the heat), and that burst of vinegary, briny, pickle-y sourness when you bite into one cuts through the richness of all that cheese like a knife.
3) The place looks like nothing from the outside. Or like very little, anyhow. Just another low-rise storefront on a block full of them. But then you step in and feel the warmth of the place on your skin, and there’s something very powerful about the attraction. The space itself is simple. Lots of wood. A few tables (with additional seating upstairs). Big chalkboard menu hung over the counter at the back of the room, and a little case with cookies from Famous 4th Street. But it’s exactly what it needs to be and nothing more.
4) Idaho nachos. These aren’t really a thing, because I just made that name up. But it’s what I’m calling it when you take a kettle chip (they come with every sandwich), use it to scrape a little bit of overflow cheese off the wax paper inside your to-go box, and then eat it. Boom: Idaho nachos.
5) Homemade roasted tomato soup. To dip your sandwich in. Unless the $3.50 will break your budget (or they’re sold out, which will happen sometimes now that the weather has cooled), this should be a no-brainer. Even just the smell of it will make you feel like you’re living in some kind of 1970s Campbell’s soup commercial.
6) The Valley Thunder, which, on its surface, is just kind of a muddled mess, throwing 12-month-cave-aged Valley Thunder white cheddar, beef brisket and house-made macaroni and cheese together into some kind of stoner super-sandwich (missing only Fritos and gummy bears). Though the macaroni is a bit much, and the texture can be weird if you get a crunchy or burned bit, it’s not at all bad, but what’s awesome is the cheese itself. Valley Thunder is the superstar cheese of Valley Shepherd Creamery (see below)—a sheep-and-cow combo that’s got the sharp bite of a good aged cheddar and fades into a long, oily sweetness. As an eating cheese, it’s excellent. As a sandwich cheese, it’s damn near perfect.
7) Customization. For an extra dollar, you can get your sandwich grilled in duck fat. It’s not a great idea (the flavor either vanishes or gets kind of, you know, ducky), but it’s an available option. For 85 cents you can have jalapeños thrown into the mix, or roasted Jersey tomato for a buck-fifty, or have the bread rubbed with garlic. You can spend days tinkering, trying to get everything just right, or you can just ask for a Classic (three Valley Shepherd cheeses and nothing else), stuffed with bacon and then grilled in bacon fat, because that’s the best way to do it unless you really love vegetables—in which case you should also add a couple slices of tomato and a smug sense of how healthy you are.
8) The Melter-Skelter comes with BBQ potato chips mashed right into the sandwich. It’s a great idea that fails a little in the execution (they get soft and mushy almost instantly), but still shows that someone is thinking hard about awesome things to put on a sandwich.
9) As an outgrowth of Valley Shepherd farm in Long Valley, New Jersey, Meltkraft is a commercial ode to the possibility of simple things, with locations already in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Reading Terminal Market. There are cheese shops and farm shops and other places where Valley Shepherd cheese is simply sold (read: everywhere), but the fact that the grilled cheese shop is the thing owners Eran Wajswol and his wife, Debra Van Sickle, have focused so much energy and capital on speaks to the power of putting cheese into people in the best way possible. And when the cheese is as good as Valley Shepherd’s is, the sandwiches (provided you don’t screw them up) are going to be equally good.
All you have to do is get out of the way.
Stars: 2 stars – Go if you’re in the neighborhood