The grilled cheese sandwich has brought smiles to countless kids and desperate college students. The ingredients can be as straightforward as cheese and bread or as nuanced as Norma’s Café’s four-cheese, Hatch chile version. In fact, all you have to do to make someone smile is have them say cheese!
It’s a versatile sandwich that can be popped into a panini press, fried on a skillet or griddle, or trapped in a toasted sandwich maker. There are only two essential ingredients needed to make the sandwich, but dozens more variations exist in countless more restaurants. Ruthie’s Rolling Café and Norma’s Café have become two of Dallas’ big cheeses.
Ruthie’s Rolling Café is grandma’s kitchen on wheels. The food truck’s menu is devoted almost entirely to the grilled cheese. Owner Ashlee Kleinert’s inspiration for the concept came from warm memories of her grandmother, Ruthie.
“I think part of it is just comfort,” said Ruthie’s Rolling Café owner Ashlee Kleinert. “It’s just simple and easy. You can stand around the kitchen while you’re preparing it at home. Those were happy memories for me growing up watching my grandmother doing that. We’d be talking and she’d make the sandwich for us and it was just really special, it was something we did together. It was easy and something I could do at a young age.”
The Boss at Ruthie’s is big on barbeque, with shredded beef and cheddar cheese on sourdough bread. The Turkey Trot replaces barbeque with turkey and bacon. The grilled cheese sandwich has been served alongside tomato soup, fries and pickle spears, but Slob Sauce is Ruthie’s Rolling Café’s side of choice. The owners even dip their potato chips in the barbeque sauce variation. Pesto is also another sauce notable for showing up on a grilled cheese menu.
At Norma’s, the grilled cheese gets its own day on the calendar. April 12th is National Grilled Cheese Day and Norma’s likes to celebrate by donating a portion of sales to charity. This April they sold over 1,500 grilled cheeses in one day, raising money to help with the relief of tornado victims in the Dallas area. They’ve been serving up comfort food since 1956 and have watched classics grow into sophisticated sandwiches.
“The classic grilled cheese with Texas toast made on the flat grill with American cheese,” said Director of Operations Bill Ziegler. “That’s what we sell probably the most of, and then we do variations of it. We do a lot of grilled cheeses where we add sliced ham to it, just a grilled ham and cheese—that’s very popular. But the green chile grilled cheese just blows everybody out of the water when they try it.”
He’s talking about a sandwich made with flash-frozen green chiles from Hatch, New Mexico. Its contents have been sautéed, melted and grilled until they nestle together in a sandwich skinny for its weight-class.
“And then this is [the Hatch green chile grilled cheese]…take it up a notch,” Zieger adds with a touch of pride. “Bacon, green chiles, sautéed onions, sautéed tomatoes and four kinds of cheese. I put American, cheddar, Jack and Swiss on that.”
When the chiles aren’t around, cheese, ham and bread become the stars of the show again.
“It’s Texas toast ‘cause we’re in Texas. Then we take the Texas toast, butter it up and put it on the flat griddle. Use two pieces of great quality American cheese, so there’s two pieces of that on there. We toast the bread on both sides on the flat griddle, which I think makes it a little bit crispy…We use a really good Virginia smoked ham that we shave really thin for omelets, club sandwiches and our ham sandwiches—really popular on the grilled cheese. We put that shaved ham on the griddle, caramelize it a little bit and put it on the cheese.”
There isn’t any secret Slob Sauce at Norma’s. Instead, they serve up their sandwiches with potatoes, spuds and taters … oh, and onion rings.
“It depends what food group you really like,” said cafeteur Ed Murph. “The waffle-shaped chips or the onion rings or the fries or, my favorite, the tater tots.”
The sandwich and its sidekicks are the harbingers of comfort and convenience. Everything about them releases memories of simpler times and simple pleasures. Generations of toddlers with tots and seniors with sandwiches prove that a two-ingredient sandwich is worth its culinary clout.