Chasing the grilled cheese truck

What’s more fun than connecting with others who are enthusiastic about tasty, trendy food?

Outside of chasing the ice-cream truck, which I loved as much as any child, I never imagined following any food truck. I considered them to be providers of ordinary sandwiches when you couldn’t bring lunch to work. In Los Angeles I always ignored the ubiquitous taco trucks that serve hot Mexican flatbread sandwiches. That is why I was baffled when a foodie friend told me she waited on line for an hour to get a grilled cheese sandwich from a truck, to eat standing up!
A few days later, I realized what was going on. At a book signing party for Eat: Los Angeles, published by Colleen Bates and written by six of the city’s top food writers, everyone was twittering about the latest festival – the LA Street Food Fest, a meeting of 30 of the city’s gourmet food trucks, promoted on People stood on line for hours to get tastes of truck-cooked food.
But these “chic street food” trucks are not run-of-the-mill hot-dog trucks. They offer creative cooking and a novel concept. Instead of becoming a fixture on a certain street corner, they turn up somewhere else every day. There is an element of suspense – you don’t know wherethe truck you like will park. Mobile cooks “tweet” about their next location, and fans eagerly check their phones or laptops and then rush to meet them. With snappy Web sites designed to appeal to the Facebook generation, they’ve created a social phenomenon.
The trio credited with starting the craze came up with innovative Korean-Mexican fusion cuisine for their Kogi Truck, serving tacos filled with Korean barbecued beef or tofu with ginger slaw. Soon other trucks appeared as well, like the Dosa Truck with Indian savorypancakes, the Green Truck with organic salads and soups, and the Fish Lips Sushi Truck, as well as trucks with food from various restaurants.
Michele Grant, the queen of the wildly popular Grilled Cheese Truck, told us that the trucks fulfill a function in this difficult economy – bringing affordable good food to people and providing jobs for restaurant workers as well.
So what’s behind their appeal? Take for example the items offered by the Grilled Cheese Truck. You can order your toasted cheese sandwich with Gruyere, brie or sharp cheddar. For something fancier, you can order a brie melt on cranberry walnut bread filled with double cream brie, sliced pears and honey, or a roasted butternut squash sandwich with Gruyere cheese, sauteed leeks and balsamic syrup. I thought the macaroni and cheese on the menu was a side dish, but it turns out it’s in a grilled cheese sandwich too; I suppose it’s similar to British spaghetti on toast. You can also have the sandwich of your childhood made with American cheese, which resembles Israeli gvina mutehet and can no longer legally be sold as cheese in US supermarkets; it has to be labeled “cheese product.”
“Well,” Grant said to me, “people request it so we have it.”
Grilled cheese, in fact, has graduated from the children’s supper table to become a frequent offering at gourmet restaurants. At a Planned Parenthood menu tasting event I attended in Los Angeles several years ago, Campanile restaurant’s grilled cheese sandwich wasone of the most sought-after items because of the chef’s fresh-baked European style breads. Their menu includes the classic croque monsieur made with Gruyere cheese, to which they add wild mushrooms and Mornay sauce, a French cheese sauce.
Another Los Angeles restaurant, Clementine, featured a month of grilled cheese specials, from Pastrami Reuben sandwiches with Gruyere and sauerkraut to quesadillas (grilled cheese inside Mexican flatbread) with havarti cheese, roasted chilies and mango. It even included a note that for Passover, sandwiches could be served meatless and on matza! I told Yakir, my husband, that we could easily buy fine cheese and good bread and have our sandwiches ready in less time and for less money than waiting at the cheese truck. His reply: “But ifyou happen to come across it, I’ll bet you’ll be tempted to join the crowd.” He’s right; after all, what’s more fun than connecting with others who are enthusiastic about tasty, trendy food?
This is a kosher version of croque madame, the Paris cafe favorite traditionally made with cheese and ham, which has recently become popular in Los Angeles. I developed the recipe for Aruhot Halaviot, the book I wrote in Hebrew on dairy cooking.
After sauteing the sandwich, some cooks spoon cheese sauce over the top and brown it in the oven. For parties the sandwich is cut in small pieces and served without the egg. In some cafes in France I found variations of this sandwich with other vegetables inside, such as sauteed mushrooms or onions, and occasionally even fruit, such as pineapple.
If you have a sandwich press, you can use it instead of a skillet; simply spread the softened butter on the outer side of each bread slice, not the part touching the cheese.
Naturally, the better the bread and cheese you use, the better the sandwich will taste.
12 slices Swiss or any slicing cheese that you like
12 slices good-quality bread
12 thin tomato slices from small tomatoes
salt and freshly ground pepper
75 gr. (5 to 6 Tbsp.) butter
6 eggs
Cut cheese slices to the same size as the bread slices. Put cheese slices on half the bread slices.
On each cheese slice put 2 tomato slices side by side, trimming them if necessary to fit the bread, and sprinkle tomatoes with a bit of salt and pepper if you like. Cover with another cheese slice, and then with a bread slice.
Melt half the butter in a large skillet. Fry half the sandwiches over medium heat, pressing gently to make the layers stick together, until the bread browns well and the cheese melts. Turn carefully and brown the second side. Keep warm while frying the remaining sandwiches and the eggs.
In another skillet melt half the remaining butter. Break 3 eggs into the skillet, sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper and fry them over medium heat as “sunny side up” eggs, until the white is firm but the yolks remain soft. Remove carefully with a pancake turner and set on 3 sandwiches. Add more butter to the skillet and fry the remaining eggs. Set on the sandwiches and serve.
Makes 6 servings.
For this Middle Eastern sandwich, it’s the cheese that is toasted, not the whole sandwich. Halloumi is a springy, semi-firm salty cheese that turns golden when pan-fried. Traditionally halloumi cheese is sauteed on its own, and then can be set on bread, as in this recipe. You can also broil the cheese directly on a slice of bread or an opened-up pita.
Serve the arugula salad on the bread or, if you prefer, chop the arugula coarsely and spoon the salad separately onto the plate.
3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Small pinch salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup finely chopped arugula
4 slices country French or Italian bread or 2 pitot
8 slices halloumi cheese, about 6 mm. thick
2 small tomatoes, sliced thin
1 to 2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
2 tsp. capers, drained
Lemon wedges
In a small bowl whisk 2 tablespoons oil with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Toss with arugula. If using pitot, halve them, then split each half carefully so it lies flat.
Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a skillet. Add the cheese slices and saute over medium-low heat about 2 minutes or until light golden. Turn carefully and brown second side.
Top bread with arugula salad, then with tomato slices. Set warm cheeseslices on top. Sprinkle with parsley, capers and a little more oil.Serve with lemon wedges, for squeezing over the cheese.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series.