@ The Mark Dine & Tap, in South Bend

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I’m not sure where I thought the University of Notre Dame was, but I didn’t know it was two blocks away from the final grilled cheese (#9) of our adventure, or the last place I would ever eat brie on purpose.

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“Not your everyday grilled cheese: Bacon, caramelized onion, brie, cheddar bread.”

You’re probably wondering why I would do this to myself again, and I don’t actually remember. I can only assume it met my search criteria – something like: Indiana, close to an I-80 off ramp. At any rate, it was a horrible mistake, and I knew as soon as it arrived. There was brie rind poking out of it, the onions looked like kraut, and it was already triggering fight or flight impulses in my brain. I took a bite, because I had to, and just held it in my mouth.

NOPE CAN’T EAT THIS.

I filled my mouth with cola, and swallowed hard. My eyes were watering. Whhhhhhhhew.

My husband hadn’t noticed my distress, but he also hadn’t ordered anything, so by now he’s just looking at me, expectantly. (“Well?”) Shit now what?! Sending it back would be humiliating, (“SIR there is mold on this cheese!”) and asking for the check and abandoning it would be worse. (“We thought one of us was hungry, but turns out, we’re not.”) I decided I’d take a crust bite while I weighed my exit strategies. But, my mind (and esophagus) had already begun shutdown sequence. Tiny heaves were happening, and he was watching me now. “You need me to eat that, don’t you.”

So, my selfless husband ate the Brie. (“It was okay.”) And I was never so happy to eat chips, and flounce out into the sunshine like I’d cheated death.

After my ordeal, rating the experience was tricky, since I can’t just give bad ratings to sandwiches made with ingredients I don’t like, and ate on purpose. Upon careful reflection, I pardoned it with (an awfully gracious) 6/10, just to show that there are no hard feelings. Which, of course there are, because I almost fucking died back there.

@Melt Bar & Grilled, in Cleveland

MELT

This is it, kids – the mothership had called me home. We arrived in Cleveland around 4 o’clock, perfectly avoiding that dreadful dinner rush that Yelp warned about. Upon entering, we are welcomed by the glowing embrace of holiday blow molds. Smiling, crazy, “WE ARE HAPPY TO SEE YOU.”

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The menu is paralyzing. The agony of facing descriptions and photos of the 24 other sandwiches I couldn’t eat was lessened by the weeks of research that had gone into my selection(s.) I say selections, plural, as my husband had graciously deferred to my expertise, and allowed me to order for him. I felt like a husband from the 1950s.

For those of you unfamiliar with Melt, they’ve been building absurdly proportioned grilled cheese sandwiches (and only grilled cheese sandwiches) since 2006. No ingredient seems to be off limits.

Grilled cheese purists, avert your eyes.

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“The Dude Abides:”Homemade meatballs, fried mozzarella wedges, basil marinara, roasted garlic, provolone & romano.”

This sandwich posed logistical challenges. While I can appreciate the wow-factor of baseball-sized meat, it’s just not practical. I mean, sure, they’re nice to look at – but I just couldn’t. Once I figured out how to conquer it, however, it proved to be a bit of a comfort food masterpiece. It was good – the sauce, the salt, the crunch, the dusting of Parmesan on garlic crusted bread, and the mountain of fries. So much cheese. It all checked out.

Mind you, I could only finish half. See, I know the gimmick of huge portions is that it’s supposed to make you feel all smug and satisfied when it arrives – but am I the only one who experiences a let-down while you’re all glassy-eyed, staring at what’s left? Isn’t it really just a racket to get people to buy two dinners, and then grin at each other like idiots while taking pictures of it? The answer is yes, of course – which is doubly cruel in this case, because everyone knows that leftover grilled cheese and fries are effing useless.

Despite those harsh realities, this was triumph. I was full and smug, had checked Melt off my grilled cheese bucket list, and put my first pin in the great state of Ohio. Nothing left now but to buy all the merch, and give it a 9/10. ($15)

@ Chedd’s, in Eau Claire

I had every intention of getting to this place, even when “this place” was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Fortunately, the universe packed them up, dropped them in Eau Claire and saved me all the trouble of a seven hour drive. (Then they promptly closed.)

“Coffee House: Smoked Gouda, Turkey, Bacon, and Pesto on Multi-grain.”

This sandwich should have been a winner. Brilliantly written, but poorly executed. It was a delicious medley of ingredients that was ruined by laziness or inexperience. or both. As you can see, it has all the tell-tale signs of having been cooked too quickly: burned bread, hard cheese, and no adhesion. Goddamn what a bummer.

The “Secrets” of Grilled Cheese, Revealed:

I was contacted by someone at Esquire.com back in April, looking to get my perspective on grilled cheese as a perfect food, per my “noted expertise in food science.” (BAHAHAH.) They ran a month of grilled cheese features and reviews for grilled cheese month, which was pretty glorious. At the time, I could have recommended five other bloggers more qualified for the task. But I’m not an idiot. So we emailed back and forth for a week or so, during which time I wrote the below, in response to her request for the “secrets” of the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Well, grilled cheese month came and went and they never ran it, and it just seems like a shame to let all this wisdom go to waste. I figured that my 50th post was a good time to take a small deviation. So here it is. Certainly not “secrets,” but the guiding principles at my house.

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Use great ingredients, if you can. No one will argue that Wonder Bread and Kraft aren’t a classic. Sure, you can make a pretty alright grilled cheese for 40 cents – that’s what’s so great about grilled cheese. This is just the beginning, though – a springboard for delicious possibilities. So, bread is important. It’s not just a delivery system for what’s inside. If you wouldn’t eat it with butter slathered on it straight out of the bag, you can do better. (Me, I happen to think my grocery store makes a pretty great Pane Di Altamura – so you don’t necessarily need to make a special trip, or spend a lot.) Cheese possibilities are endless, and can be intimidating. If you’re feeling paralyzed by choice, traditional rules will tell you that the “best” cheeses are the high fat varieties that melt well, (e.g., Gruyere, Fontina, Cheddar.) That said, I find these kinds of hard rules unnecessarily restrictive. Use more than one cheese, by all means, and use what tastes delicious to you.

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Use a sandwich press. Not the countertop appliance, the pan. Getting a solid crunch and even browning on bread requires pressure. Invest in a decent press and griddle pan, preferably one with ridges. You can get decent one for around forty bucks, but if you’d rather spend that on artisanal cheeses, you can still accomplish the same thing with some ingenuity. (Cover a plate in tin foil and stack a few cans of soup or a book on it. 2 – 3 lbs is what you’re after.

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Experiment. While it’s true that simple grilled cheese can be great, it’s also a blank canvas. There’s (almost) no such thing as a bad grilled cheese, I’ve found, and the most successful sandwich is often one you pulled out of your hat with what you found in your fridge. As a for instance, butter is not necessarily an absolute. Try grilling with mayonnaise, instead of butter. Dredge the buttered side of your bread in fresh grated (anything) before you grill it. Do you have bacon? Why isn’t that in there? Experiment with spreads inside the sandwich – aioli, tapenade, mustards. Just last week I accidentally blew my own mind with some red pepper hummus.

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Finally, respect the cheese. Do not undermine its authority by crowding it out with too many other ingredients. Not sure? Here’s how you know you’ve done things right. Are your slices of bread firmly adhered to one another? When you cut your sandwich in half, does it hemorrhage, just a little bit? Yes? Then well done, my friend. Feast.

@ The Fallingwater Cafe, in Mill Run

We departed Philadelphia on the fifth day, and began the return west into Amish country. First stop, Intercourse. We’d both been looking forward to it for days. If I’m being honest, though, it was kind of a let down. Not much excitement, over pretty quickly. I did pick up some literature on the subject, though. If you’re into that sort of thing.

We reached Mill Run late in the day, and checked into our (first ever) bed & breakfast. We sat in floral print splendor and stared at each other until it was time to go to bed. In the morning, a bright and early reservation to see the most important building of the 20th century. And then there was this.

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“Ham and Asparagus Panini: Ham, Swiss and asparagus on wheat-berry bread.”

Despite Frank Lloyd Wright’s success in utilizing the cantilever design and attractive local materials in his design of Fallingwater, the café on site was unable to leverage these concepts in the construction of their panini. Let’s review:

Poor construction. Fallingwater was lovingly constructed over two years by local stonemasons. The “grilling” of this Panini was done hastily, with a dry heat method that failed to properly secure the lower level to that above.

Inferior materials. While Fallingwater’s horizontal trays were made of reinforced concrete, the horizontal trays of this panini were flaccid and unpalatable.

Structural issues. Fallingwater’s cantilever is anchored into the rock of the adjacent hillside. The back of this Panini was anchored in a precarious slaw pile.

Edgar Kaufmann Jr. called the house an “ever-flowing source of exhilaration.” I found this Panini to be a source of indigestion, and awarded it a 3.

But it was pretty hard to be mad.

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@ E’s on Main Street, in Middletown

We spent ten or fifteen minutes driving through Delaware on our way up to Philadelphia, and I found what was obviously something of a treasure in Middletown. We were only there a short time, but I got the sense that everyone who walked in had eaten there dozens of times, and was known by name. I later learned that E(ileen) was best known for her creamy tomato soup, and voted “Best Soup Downstate DE.” It’s cute that Delaware thinks it’s big enough to have regions.

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“The best in Middletown, guaranteed to eat the crust: Choose from American, Swiss, Jack, Provolone, or Cheddar on Texas Toast.” (Mine was ‘Merican, + bacon.)

Challenge accepted, E. Now me, if I wanted to encourage crust consumption, I wouldn’t necessarily lead with Texas toast. It generally just leads to a bland, disproportionate let down. And a plate of crust. Perhaps Texas and Delaware have some kind of bread alliance, wherein they agree to send only inferior toasts to Wisconsin, and nothing but the finest of toasts to the good people of Delaware?

I’m on to you, Texas. I gave that shit a 7.

And this.

@ Big Pecker’s, in Ocean City

Cockadoodledoo.

Stay classy, Ocean City.  (If you’ve never been, and have some Axe body spray you can put it in your mouth, it’s a little bit like that.) Our arrival was met with a dousing of liquid sunshine that went on for 72 straight hours.  If we’re keeping score, it actually rained every single day in each of the 7 states we visited. It’s probably also pertinent to mention here that I was four months pregnant on this trip – although apparently the meal you see below is some kind of “give away.”

You must be pregnant.

Adequate.

“Grilled Cheese: Your choice of cheese, your choice of bread.”

I opted for American on white, and the results were adequate. The bread was unnecessarily saturated with whatever oily nonsense they grilled it with, but it was just distracting enough that I could pretend for a moment that my girly drink was legit. I was trolleyed right out of the land of make believe when a delightful woman at the bar broadcasted that “Only a pregnant girl would order a non-alcoholic daiquiri and a grilled cheese!” Despite my impulse to challenge her, I’ve come to understand that having the palate of a toddler should embarrass me legitimately, and probably not something I should continue to volunteer. I kept quiet, and I gave it a 6. ($5.99)

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