Category Archives: Commentary

On Grilled Cheese: How Much is Too Much?


Like all great sandwiches, the grilled cheese is a simple endeavor. In its most basic form, it’s two pieces of bread and a couple slices of cheese, heated to a melty crisp on a hot skillet or grill press. It’s comfort food at its best, a staple of the American childhood experience that, unlike our security blankets or pacifiers, we never quite relinquish as we grow old. Throughout the country, there are restaurants, food trucks, catering businesses, cookbooks, websites and blogs dedicated to its celebration.

In a fortuitous fluke of coincidence, I was pitched last week by two contributors who were both interested in sharing a story about a specific grilled cheese sandwich, one from Philadelphia and the other from Florida. You’ll have a chance to read their reports in the coming days, but in the process of responding to their proposals, I began to develop some thoughts I felt compelled, by way of introducing a sort of mini-package on grilled cheese, to share. Continue reading

The Veggie Burger: Eternally Doomed by Unfortunate Branding

In the pantheon of Great American Sandwiches, vegetarian-friendly options occupy a lamentably small corner. Judged on ubiquity alone, this group comprises just two undisputed classics: the peanut butter and jelly and the grilled cheese. In roadside diners and dingy cafeterias from coast to coast, where meatless menu items might otherwise be scarce, our animal-abstinent friends can be sure they will find at least one of these two sandwiches.

Making a good case in the past 20 years to just their ranks is the veggie burger, a sandwich I generally enjoy but about which I have one central gripe. In addition to adhering to the guidelines of a vegetarian diet, the veggie burger shares in common with the peanut butter and jelly and the grilled cheese this curious characteristic: a complete lack of actual vegetables. Indeed, although veggie burger recipes can vary wildly, they generally contain some combination of grains, beans, nuts, spices and binding agents such as egg or breadcrumbs. Rare is the example that includes true vegetables other than the ones stacked on top. Is it so absurd to think at least one of these vegetarian sandwiches should showcase actual vegetables? Continue reading

Commentary: Hard Talk About Soft Openings

A couple years ago, I was following an online chat during which a question was posed on whether it is fair to demand top-level service and food during the days and weeks immediately following a restaurant’s opening. The majority of the respondents sympathized with new eateries, which, so the conversation went, ought to be granted a grace period to work out the kinks in the service chain and to allow the staff and cooks to familiarize themselves with the menu. It was agreed that it’s only natural that slip-ups would occur during this time, known increasingly as a soft opening*, which is characterized by limited menus, limited hours, general inconsistency and, evidently, lowered expectations. (*An overused term once reserved for invite-only meals that were warm-ups for the staff and often free of charge to those lucky enough to be on the list. This seems no longer to be the case.)

Presumably, proprietors take for granted that the inevitable mistakes and disorganization won’t deter their earliest customers from becoming their repeat customers. Here’s the thing: There is no other industry on Earth in which customers are expected to accept below-average products or service and pay full price for the privilege. Why should restaurants be any different?
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The Rule of Portability, or Debunking the Open-Faced “Sandwich”

On Wednesday night the Adams Morgan gastropub The Black Squirrel, site of my upcoming launch party and nearest thing I have to a local watering hole, offered a unique special: a free Maker’s Mark bourbon cocktail with any order of a hot brown sandwich. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal; at nearby whiskey bar Bourbon, a Maker’s Mark will set you back $6. Had you been on 18th Street on Wednesday night, you might have been tempted to partake. You probably also would have asked yourself, “What in the hell is a hot brown sandwich?”

The hot brown is a kind of Appalachian shepherd’s pie. Invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky (thus the bourbon pairing), the dish comprises a piece of toasted white bread covered with sliced turkey, doused in a bechamel sauce, topped with bacon and baked until crispy. Dressed-up versions can include a range of vegetable garnishes. The hot brown is an example of what’s popularly known as an open-faced sandwich.

In other words, it’s not a sandwich at all.

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Notes on “Authenticity”

Featured in last week’s City Paper is a fascinating Young & Hungry piece by Jessica Sidman that profiles a handful of American-born chefs and their pursuits of “authenticity” in their preparation of various ethnic cuisines. Haidar Karoum, Scott Drewno and Mike Isabella, who offer something like Spanish, Chinese and Mexican/Italian fare at Estadio, The Source and Bandolero/Graffiato, respectively, discuss how their backgrounds, travels and training prepared them to step outside their expected culinary comfort zones. The article in general, and much of the reportage therein, is illustrative of what I consider Americans’ pointless obsession with authenticity in food.

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