Food Fight: Battle Grilled Cheese
Grilled cheese is one of the ultimate comfort foods, perfect for chilly weather -- especially when served with a bowl of creamy tomato soup. And like most comfort foods -- mashed potatoes, chicken and dumplings, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken -- it's spectacular in its simplest incarnation but can go horribly awry when any attempts are made at jazzing it up.
Technically speaking, a grilled cheese sandwich should consist of two things: bread (preferable buttered) and cheese. Nothing else. Take that buttered bread -- and, let's be honest, you have to use white bread for the total effect -- put it in a hot skillet, toast it on one side, flip it over and add cheese (Velveeta, if you're being truly Texan) to both slices, press those slices together and cook on both sides until cheese is melty. Voila. Honest and endlessly effective comfort food.
Yet despite this, so many restaurants try to spice up the simple sandwich by adding all manner of other ingredients. Is it perhaps because a restaurant feels that it can't serve just cheese and white bread to its customers and charge for it? Or is it because they feel an insatiable need to show off and class up a classic? Prettied up peasant food is all the rage these days, after all.
Whatever their reasoning, sometimes the decision to spice up the grilled cheese sandwich can go very well if executed properly -- and we end up loving the crazy, mixed-up result just as much as the original. Other times it can go very badly. Witness this week's food fight...
Yes, the venerated late-night dining institution has been featured on Food Fight before -- but only for milkshakes, not the actual food. And after a a long night (or day, if that's your thing) of drinking, the food at 59 Diner is what will get you through the night or help you recover in the morning.
The grilled cheese here used to be one of our favorites in town: two kinds of cheese slapped between two thick slices of jalapeno Texas toast, with a healthy serving of sliced tomatoes added in for good measure. The only condiment we ever added in the past was mayonnaise, and that's just because we don't like our arteries that much, but even mayo wasn't going to save yesterday's grilled cheese.
It came out incredibly soggy, yet sorely lacking in cheese at the same time. What little cheese there was had crusted over and looked like it had been clinging to the bread for at least an hour. The jalapeno bread lacked any kick and tasted mostly of starch. The customary tomato slices were there, but with a "grilled cheese" sandwich that was neither grilled nor primarily composed of cheese, what was the point? We picked unhappily at our limp fries, imagining the sandwich languishing under some bizarre heat lamp-steam table hybrid in the back of 59 Diner's kitchen and thinking back to a time when they were better than this.
Almost the polar opposite of 59 Diner in terms of atmosphere (hipsterish) and clientele (hipsters), Brasil is nevertheless more similar to the diner than you may think. Both serve big breakfasts and comfort food, and both are open late (although Brasil is only open until 11:45 p.m.), although only one (we'll let you guess) shows movies like Night of the Hunter and Fantastic Planet on the patio at night.
Brasil has long had some of our favorite sandwiches -- we even gave one of them a 2009 Best of Houston® award this year -- and the grilled cheese is no exception. Served on thick slices of perfectly toasted white bread and topped with four kinds of cheese, the sandwich would be good even if it stopped there -- but it doesn't. Is it a traditional grilled cheese sandwich that will send you swooning to memories of your favorite stuffed rabbit and lazy Sunday afternoons in winter in your footed PJs? No. But it works out deliciously somehow.
The bread has a generous spread of not-too-garlicky pesto on both slices and there are several peppy tomato slices in between the cheese. The entire concoction results in a hearty meal that will tide you over for hours, especially when paired with the lightly-seasoned skin-on French fries.
Although it's not your typical grilled cheese sandwich, Brasil wins this battle handily. Even if the 59 Diner sandwich hadn't been cooked / steamed within an inch of its life, there's no question that the pesto-tomato-cheese sandwich at Brasil would have easily taken it down in its prime.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.