By JAN ELLEN SPIEGEL
The moment the side panel of the Cheese Truck opens, Daksha Rajagopalan is there. Though it’s barely 11 in the morning, this third-year Yale student orders grilled cheese “with roasted reds — that’s peppers — and grilled onions,” and then patiently waits while Jeff Weaver gets the griddle going with the first batch of what could be a couple of hundred grilled cheese sandwiches before the afternoon is out.
“It reminds me of that scene in ‘Ratatouille,’ you know that Disney movie,” said Ms. Rajagopalan, who grew up in Singapore, where grilled cheese was not a part of life. “He eats that smoked mushroom and then he eats that cheese and there’s like this big explosion of color and whirl in his head. That’s what I like about the grilled cheese.”
The Cheese Truck (a mobile offshoot of Caseus, a New Haven cheese shop and bistro) and Cheeseboy’s Grilled Cheese to Go in the Connecticut Post Mall in nearby Milford seem to be riding the cusp of a new minitrend in the New Haven area: grilled cheese on the run. “Crispy melty,” Mr. Weaver said in a how-can-you-not-know-that tone. “That’s it. Everybody loves it.”
For decades, grilled cheese has been the purview of desperate parents, poor college students, kiddie menu frequenters and the kitchen-challenged, taking the form of less-than-natural cheese melted between cheap, additive-laced bread. It’s had a recent star turn with pricey, gourmet versions served at upscale eateries — including Caseus, whose menu includes a $12 thick-slabbed monster. But there’s only a handful of street- or fast-food grilled cheese enterprises nationwide and almost as many flopped endeavors.
Jason Sobocinski, owner of Caseus, and his brother Tom had been trying to figure out a way to take a down-scaled version of their grilled cheese on the road; what they came up with hit the streets last winter. It had thinner, though still large, locally baked sourdough bread slices, and a vastly diminished price: $5 with $1 apiece for add-ons like tomato, arugula, jambon de Paris, applewood smoked bacon, guacamole and those roasted reds and grilled onions. There’s always tomato soup — hot this time of year, gazpacho in warm weather — for $3. And there’s a daily special — Monte Cristos; mustard greens and Camembert; beehive cheese and caramelized apple, to name a few. This day it’s “stinky” cheese and skirt steak.
The truck technique is nearly identical to the restaurant one. Sandwich halves are fried open-faced in generous amounts of Cabot unsalted butter, then topped with six shredded cheeses (Comté, provolone, extra-sharp Vermont cheddar, gruyere, raclette, two-year aged Gouda), plus a seventh from whatever’s left over in the shop, except blue-veined cheeses — consistent inconsistency, Mr. Sobocinski calls it.
In the restaurant, the halves get their final melt in the oven before they’re slapped together. In the truck, which has a full mobile kitchen, but no oven, it’s all done on the griddle, with the add-ins last. All orders come with Roland brand whole-grain Dijon mustard and cornichons.
By 1 p.m. on this chilly autumn day, the line along a side street on the Yale campus numbers more than a dozen, with another half-dozen or so waiting for orders.
“I don’t know if it’s a comfort thing when it’s cold: you get this hot tomato soup and this hot grilled cheese, and it’s just wonderful,” said Charles Gyer, a sophomore at Yale from Louisiana who ordered a classic plain with soup and a Coke (Mexican, in bottles). Pointing to a nearby building, he said, “I have class every day in that building that lets out at 12:30, and if the truck’s here, you can’t really pass it up. It’s pretty hard to just say no.”
Aside from the daily street rounds, the truck is in demand for catering, from business meetings to weddings. “What’s better than crispy melty?” Mr. Sobocinski asked, invoking that phrase again, but also admitting that the recession-driven comfort food craze hasn’t hurt.
“I definitely didn’t invent the grilled cheese, and I certainly didn’t invent the rage for grilled cheese,” he said. “I think I just keyed in on it and did it at the right time.”
That’s what Michael Inwald, a grilled cheese lover and maker since childhood, is counting on with Grilled Cheese to Go. On leave from his M.B.A. studies at Yale to, in his words, “pursue grilled cheese,” Mr. Inwald is thinking along a franchised fast-food platform; his second location opened last month in Boston.
His model is also soup and sandwich. Soups change daily, and the most basic sandwich is $2.99. Customers have a choice of four breads and five cheeses, all fresh-sliced as needed, and at least a dozen add-ins, including bacon, turkey and pepperoni at 99 cents each, or basil, tomato, pickles and jalapeño at 49 cents each. The sandwiches are cooked in butter on a flat panini-style press.
“Grilled cheese is the epitome of comfort food,” Mr. Inwald said, citing a statistic that Americans eat 2.2 billion grilled cheese sandwiches a year. “It’s when you want something that’s not too heavy, tastes great, reminds you of childhood.”
And that reminder can come anytime if the Saturday New Haven Farmers’ Market is any indication. The Cheese Truck can count on takers there when it opens at 9 a.m. On a recent Saturday, it was pushing 11 when Paul Berry, a professor of music history and Cheese Truck regular, ordered the day’s special, grilled cheese with brisket. “It’s just good food,” he said.
The Cheese Truck is at the Saturday farmers’ market in New Haven from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (check cityseed.org for the market’s winter hours). From 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, the truck follows a more-or-less regular route through New Haven. Check its Twitter feed and Web site (thecheesetruck.com) for times and locations.
Grilled Cheese to Go, Connecticut Post Mall, 1201 Boston Post Road, Milford; grilledcheesetogo.com.