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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: October 13, 2014

Grilled cheese roundup: Where to get this classic sandwich in Portland

There are some good examples of the classic grilled cheese sandwich in Portland but the field is wide open for more; the Miss Portland Diner’s grilled cheese, however, is the Best in Show!

Written by: John Golden

In its infinite variety Portland would have no further to fall as a food destination if its only draw were the simplicity of a great grilled cheese sandwich. We may excel in other culinary endeavors—and do so beautifully—but in my roundup of where to get this classic comfort-food staple, it was mighty slim pickings.

Of course there were notable exceptions. But the list is short. And it’s disappointing that there wasn’t more creativity in the works at some places where it would have been expected.

Glorious grilled cheese

Glorious grilled cheese

A natural for great grilled cheese should have unfolded at the Blue Rooster, for instance, where the art of the sandwich is high. It offers, among others, a hot dog smothered in cheese sauce and the proverbial helping of mac and cheese.  But nowhere on its menu was an inspired rendition that put two slices of bread together holding a combination of cheeses spiked with additions that could add up to a super sandwich.

Duckfat does have a delicious house-cured ham and cheese panini made with their own sauerkraut and beer mustard served on rye; I’ve had it many times in the past and its goodness as a European-style sandwich is paramount.

Much larger cities (it doesn’t take much to be bigger than Portland) like Boston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco offer the works in astounding ways.  What do you say about cheddar with foie gras? Apples and Muenster? Goat cheese melting around chocolate covered bacon?  Yum!

I conferred with sandwichmeister Jason Loring of Nosh and was surprised that grilled cheese was not on his current menu.  He reminded me that his eatery once had a great one: Cotswold cheese, raclette and cheddar with orange marmalade and finished with bacon dust. OMG. Sorry to have missed that one. Put it back on, Jason!

Growing up in New York, I was reared on grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. They were the height of simplicity at any of the city’s greasy spoon coffee shops and luncheonettes. Plain old white bread was smeared with American cheese with maybe tomato, ham or bacon added and put on a well-seasoned flat top under a grill weight to seal in those precious moments of cheese melting under the weight as the bread developed that crusty, golden brown patina. My mother loved her grilled cheese sandwiches, but her preference was to have it on seedless rye, which I never could understand. Still, paired with a cup of Campbell’s soup (or style thereof) and that was lunch sandwich heaven.

Recently joining Portland’s restaurant roster are two establishments that only serve grilled cheese: Maps on Market Street and Arcadia National Bar on Preble Street. Unfortunately, you’d be out of luck to head to either of these for lunch, since Maps doesn’t open until 4 p.m. and Arcadia an hour later.

Why Maps, with its Old Port location, isn’t open for lunch is a mystery. I can understand Arcadia as a bar for gamers keeping late hours. So I didn’t go to either of them since my criteria was to cover lunchtime places that serve the sandwich.

On Saturday I searched (to no avail) the whereabouts of the newest meals on wheels offering called, Muthah Truckah serving mufulettas, a bread that’s a cross between focaccia and ciabatta. One of the hot sandwiches on the menu is The Mabel: sharp cheddar, baked ham, apple, red onion and honey mustard that is presumably grilled. I’m guessing that the truck doesn’t operate on weekends but can be found on varying weekdays at Rising Tide in Bayside, Spring and Temple streets and also parked along the Eastern Prom.

Without further ado, here in descending order of excellence is the short road map of grilled cheese sandwiches.

For classic grilled cheese the Miss Portland Diner had the best. In fact, keep an eye on this iconic establishment because they’re in the process of overhauling their kitchen and menu, which will be complete by November 1. At lunchtime especially, new and revised dishes are on the menu now.  I’ve been privy to the changes going on there and have sampled some of the new dishes–they’re terrific, including a killer meat loaf.

The gorgeous Miss grilled cheese at Miss Portland Diner served with creamy Cole slaw, pickle and chips

The gorgeous  grilled cheese at Miss Portland Diner served with creamy Cole slaw, pickle and chips

The combination of cheddar and American cheeses creates a very rich, creamy sandwich at Portland Diner

The combination of cheddar and American cheeses creates a very rich, creamy sandwich at Portland Diner

As for the grilled cheese it’s made with Pineland Farm’s cheddar and good quality American processed cheese sandwiched on Sorella’s bread.  It’s put on a buttered flat top and grilled until ultra-crisp. I added bacon and tomato—and it was so rich I could barely finish it all.  Served with the house’s creamy Cole slaw, pickle and chips it was a great lunch.

This is an extremely popular place for the lunchtime crowd; a new dinner menu will be introduced soon

This is an extremely popular place for the lunchtime crowd; a new dinner menu will be introduced soon

The Blue Spoon makes a creative sandwich with taleggio cheese, apricot jam and arugula on thick peasant style bread. It’s grilled in butter, and it’s a really delicious sandwich with a lingering depth of flavor. The ooze factor, however, was less on this sandwich than the others I had. But it was one of the best of the lot.

Grilled cheese at Blue Spoon

Grilled cheese at Blue Spoon

Cozy setting at lunch

Cozy setting at lunch

I wasn’t surprised by the good show that Hot Suppa puts on in their interpretation of grilled cheese.  It came out beautifully crispy though the ooze factor wasn’t as high as it was at the Portland Diner.  It’s made with American cheese melted on Sorella’s bread.  With it came a tasty cup of tomato soup, just like Mom would have would have served for lunch at the kitchen table. Though the menu doesn’t list filling options, bacon, tomato or ham can be added, and another version that I wished I had known about was the grilled cheese with fried green tomatoes—classic!

The classic grilled cheese, houise-made pickles and tomato soup combo at Hot Suppa

The classic grilled cheese, house-made pickles and tomato soup combo at Hot Suppa

Always a crowd at Hot Suppa

Always a crowd at Hot Suppa

The Q Street Diner in South Portland fared well in the grilled cheese department. They didn’t do anything special to the sandwich other than use 3 slices of your choice of cheese (American, cheddar or Swiss), grilled in plenty of butter until very crispy with good cheese melt.  You can add bacon or ham for $1 extra. But this was a good diner-style sandwich.

Grilled cheese with bacon at Q Street

Grilled cheese with bacon at Q Street

Q Street Diner in South Portland

No-frills Q Street Diner in South Portland

You would think that a diner like Becky’s would deliver on serving a classic greasy-spoon-style grilled cheese.  Theirs, however, was very disappointing.  I asked for plain white bread and cheddar and that’s what I got.  It was grilled well enough but it just didn’t make it as a great sandwich.  The bread was too thick, the cheese tasteless and it wasn’t crisp enough on the outside.  I was going to add bacon, but at $1.95 extra, the add-on seemed excessive for a few rashers.  I love Becky’s for its other hearty fare like fish chowders and breakfast plates.  For grilled cheese, don’t bother.

Grilled cheese at Becky's

Grilled cheese at Becky’s

At home I make grilled cheese often for lunch. Generally I use Cabot cheddar, which I grate on a box grater. For bread I’ll use what I have, though Arnold’s Country White is a good choice, though a bit on the thick side, however, I weigh it down, applying pressure on the grill press.

I heat up my cast-iron pan, add butter to melt until sizzling and flip the sandwich several times in the melted butter to get the initial coating before grilling it.  With a grill press weighing it down I cook it over medium-low heat so as not to burn the bread and give the cheese plenty of time to melt.  Sometimes I’ll add chutney, tomato, bacon or ham.  I wash it down with a tall glass filled with Gerolsteiner sparkling mineral water on the rocks.

If you have suggestions for other places for great grilled cheese, let me know in the comments section below or send me an email and I’ll post those findings here.

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