The crisp, golden brown, oozing allure of a grilled cheese sandwich is undeniable. But the idea of a restaurant that specializes in the art of the grilled cheese? That still seems mildly shocking to me.
Not so many years ago, I might have scoffed at the notion that a sushi bar would open on Dixie Highway, or that Jeffersonville would be home to an outstanding Thai restaurant. I might not have foreseen the insurgent locavore movement, the rise of artisanal cocktails, or the sudden appearance of duck fat popcorn in a Germantown restaurant.
But I daresay that if, say, 20 years ago you’d asked a trend spotter to predict which of those developments was likely to become reality, the grilled cheese restaurant would have ranked at the bottom of the list.
And yet, in Louisville we now have multiple restaurants competing in this unlikely arena: Tom+Chee, with locations on Bardstown Road and near the University of Louisville (www.tomandchee.com), and Lil Cheezers on Baxter Avenue (and a food truck presence).
The grilled cheese revolution is part of a bigger trend. When the recession crashed down on the pocketbooks and palates of consumers who had developed a taste for upscale food, chefs and restaurateurs responded by upgrading burgers, hot dogs, pizzas, etc., with imaginative ingredients that would have been unimaginable a couple of years ago. Don’t want to spend $40 for a foie gras appetizer in an upscale restaurant? Somebody somewhere will sell you a foie gras and Sauternes duck sausage dressed with truffle aioli for 10 bucks.
Grilled cheese sandwiches are the perfect platform for catering to gourmet tastes at popular prices, and Matt Davis, owner of Lil Cheezers, has a pretty good knack for making that work. He started out with a food truck about 18 months ago, and opened a brick-and-mortar location a few months back.
It’s a small, casual place with counter service, quick service and a playlist that sometimes overflows with brooding contemporary rock (think Daughtry) and melancholy folk (which these days seems a bracing antidote to the sugary holiday songs that dominate the airwaves).
The menu is short and well-executed. A “gourmet” grilled sandwich involves more than just interesting ingredients; it also requires a bit of technique — as anyone who’s ever made a floppy, greasy, spongy sandwich knows.
The folks at Lil Cheezers seem to have that problem solved; if a grilled cheese sandwich can be said to have such a thing, these sandwiches have authority.
The Buenos Huevos — made with spicy chorizon (it exudes just the right amount of crimson oil), a fried egg and pepper Jack (by choice) — felt thick in my hand, and was like an oozy suspension of meat and cheese that held together perfectly — delivering some gutsy spicy flavors in the bargain ($7).
The Jive Turkey was just as good. It was made from sliced roasted turkey that tasted and felt like the real thing and was well-matched with melted smoked Gouda and the bold flavors of roasted red pepper and basil pesto ($8).
Diners can mix and match various ingredients and cheeses (and for purists a simple grilled cheese can be had for $6), but the composed sandwiches are pretty fun. Those who are recovering from shopping trips (or fortifying themselves for that dreaded trip to the mall) can nourish up with a Highlands Philly — slices of roast beef, sauteed onions and peppers, and cheddar ($8; sorry, as far as I can tell, there’s no Cheez Whiz on the menu, but if you wanted to substitute the “Pabst Schmear,” you might be on to something … ).
If your taste runs to something a bit lighter, the Caprese has all the elements of Italy’s famous salad — mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, a hint of garlic and a drizzle of balsamic reduction — in the form of a sandwich ($8).
But if it’s side dishes you’re after, it’s worth noting that in the post-Twinkie era, we’re all going to be looking for new things to fry. And let’s face it: The only way to improve on macaroni and cheese is to form it into balls and fry it up into golden brown globes — which Lil Cheezers does for a buck each.
And yes, in addition to bottled beers, fountain drinks and soups (a commendably chunky tomato-basil) and fruit cups, Lil Cheezers offers desserts — including a version of that campground classic, the s’more ($4), a sandwich with all the fixin’s: graham crackers, melted chocolate, fluffy marshmallow cream and a dusting of powdered sugar. Just the sort of thing you might be tempted to try if you find yourself on Baxter Avenue at 4 a.m. on a weekend …
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.