Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen

Ok, I'll admit it.  I've been to The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen a slew of times, and ... I've never had their grilled cheese.

Now that we've cleared that up, let me tell you about the place.  Yes, they are known for their grilled cheese.  When they opened back in 2010, the stories didn't stop about how the lines were always out the door.  Everyone was flocking there for grilled cheese.  And for good reason.

The owners opened after winning their 7th National Grilled Cheese Championship (yes, this apparently exists).  The head chef/owner has a Master’s degree in engineering from MIT ... and has taken an obsessive scientific focus to researching and perfecting grilled cheese making.

I'm sure they make excellent grilled cheese.  But I'm just not a sandwich girl.  If I were though, some of the grilled cheese options do sound pretty amazing, as you'd expect, they aren't exactly just simple basic grilled cheese.  One even has mac and cheese stuffed inside of its garlic-buttered bread.  Another has roasted mushrooms, melted leeks, caramelized onions, and thyme butter mixed in alongside melted gruyere.

But the menu goes far beyond grilled cheese.  They have soups, salads, and sides (including a mac and cheese of the day).  They serve breakfast grilled cheeses with eggs.  But still, none of this is really what I go for.

You know me.  I love my baked goods.  And it turns out, The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen also knows how to bake.  They make their own muffins, biscuits, blondies, and cookies, with the flavors changing daily.  It reminds me a little of The Rib Whip food truck, in that while they are known as specialists in one area (BBQ -> grilled cheese)), they totally blow me away with incredible desserts (buttermilk pie -> blondies).

They no longer have crazy lines, not because people don't like the place, but because they have greatly expanded, into two locations, one large one in South Park, and another in the Mission.

The Space


Outdoor Seating: Mission.
Both locations have outdoor seating, but in the Mission, there are only a few tables on the small sidewalk.
Outdoor Seating: South Park.
In South Park, they have a lot more outdoor space, with tables filling a large area out front.
Inside: Mission.
Both locations also have tables inside, along with bar seating.  The inside space in the Mission seems bigger, with more tables.
Bar Seating,:South Park.
In South Park, there are only a few tables, the bar area, and outside seating, are the majority of hte seating.
Open Kitchen: South Park.
The Mission location I believe has a larger kitchen, as they offer up more items like fries, burgers, fried chicken, and crispy brussels sprouts.  At the South Park location, the kitchen is pretty small.  It is semi-open, with a window into the space.

Drinks

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen offers a large variety of drinks, including a large selection of bottled drinks, beer, mimosas (tempting!), and housemade sodas and lemonades, with flavors changing regularly.  They also serve de la paz coffee, and one of my local favorites, T-We tea.
Green Apple Ginger Housemade Soda.  $3.06.
Ojan has tried many of the sodas and lemonades, and always quite liked them.

One time when I went, it was a ridiculously hot day, and the first thing I needed was a cold drink.  I was planning to get a hot coffee to go with my muffin, but given the weather, I changed my mind.

That day, there were two housemade sodas to pick from: blood orange or green apple ginger.  I never order sodas anywhere, but given my desire for something thirst quenching, I went for the green apple ginger.  It was sweet, but the finish was spicy from the ginger, which gave it the refreshing quality I was looking for.  But after a few sips, I found it just too sweet.  I also would not have identified it as green apple.  After some ice melted and watered it down a bit, I liked it again.

The person making my drink didn't seem to measure, she just combined the green apple ginger syrup and soda water, so I imagine there is some variance here.  Just a little less syrup and I think this would have really, really hit the spot.

$3.06 for a housemade soda seems about on par.
Decaf Coffee.  $2.
The coffee is from De La Paz, available in decaf or regular.

I always opt for decaf, which requires it to be fresh brewed (the regular coffee is pre-brewed and kept hot).  It always takes a little while to get a cup of decaf, because they do it pour-over style.  I don't mind the wait though, because the pour over technique works well with this coffee, and it is always pretty decent.

Skim milk or cream, and basic sweeteners are available.

A large coffee is only $2, actually quite a deal for a pour over!

Muffins

As I mentioned, The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen bakes their own fresh muffins, and the variety changes daily.  They post the muffin flavor (and other daily specials) to their Facebook page every morning.  I've been following them, and have been tempted by so many of the muffin flavors (peanut butter and jelly muffins, seriously, how great does that sound?).  They generally sound great.

Since I love my morning baked goods, it didn't take long for me to get in and start trying the muffins.
Apple Cinnamon Muffin.  $2.50.
On my first visit, I was really hopping that the peanut butter and jelly, or perhaps lemon and blueberry, would come up on the day I was going, but alas, my only option was apple cinnamon.  Not what I'd ever pick, nor really all that seasonal in the middle of summer.  It seems more appropriate for fall.

It was a decent muffin.  A large size, but not a total monster.  Very dense.  Inside were generous chunks of apple.  I really appreciated that they didn't skimp on the fruit.  There were a lot of chunks, and they were all a good size.  The fruit was cooked perfectly, not too soft and mushy, not too crisp.  The fruit made the muffin very moist.  If only I liked apples!  Had this been filled with berries, I think I would have loved it, and the plentiful fruit would have been wonderful.

The muffin base wasn't remarkable, fairly plain.  I didn't taste much cinnamon spicing.  On top was a nice crumbly streusel layer, a bit sweetened, and it added an enjoyable crunch.

Overall, it was fine, but again, just not exactly what I wanted.  It reminded me a lot of a coffee cake, which just isn't my favorite style of muffin.  And particularly not when I don't have a coffee to pair with it.  But there were many redeeming qualities to this muffin, and I'll definitely return sometime to try another flavor, hopefully berry next time!

The $2.50 price tag was perfect for a muffin of this size, freshly baked.
PB & J Muffin.  $2.50.
On my next visit, the PB & J finally was available.  How could I not try it?

On top was the same as my first muffin, slightly sweet, streusel crumb topping.  I really liked the crunch it added, although, it again did make it feel a bit like a coffee cake, or a dessert.  Not a bad thing, but made it a bit hard to justify eating for breakfast.

Under the crumble topping was my favorite part: the crispy top.  I may be strange in this way, but I love my muffins and cupcakes to have crispy tops.  I want the inside moist, sure, but I like the top to have some bite to it.  So many places make their muffins and cupcakes all homogenous, which I guess is impressive baking skill, but, just not my style.
Inside the PB & J Muffin.
The inside was the real goodness.  Big gobs of both peanut butter & jam were hiding in here.  The cake itself was fairly plain, but moist, just like in the apple and cinnamon muffin.  This was totally fine, since the pb & j added plenty of flavor, and there was tons of it.  It tasted like ... well, yup, a pb & j.

So, let's step back here.  I like muffins.  I like pb & j.  I like streusel crumble topping.  So yes, I liked this.  I'm not really sure what it was appropriate for though, as it was a bit too ridiculous for a breakfast item.  But it wasn't really a dessert either.  I'm going with mid-afternoon snack?

My absolute favorite part of this muffin was the play of textures: the crumb topping, the crispy muffin top, the creamy peanut butter, the gooey jelly, and, the part I haven't told you about yet: the caramelized jam.  There were places where the jam had seeped out during baking, and it got all crusty and caramelized.  I loved those bits.

Overall, it came together exactly as I expected, and the $2.50 price for a large fresh muffin was totally reasonable.  I'm not sure I'd get another, but I'm very glad I finally got to try it.

(And yes, I intentionally interchanged my use of in both "jam" and "jelly" throughout this review, and yes I know there is a major difference, but since it was just listed as PB & J, I actually don't know which it was.  I'm pretty sure it was jam, which, is superior to jelly in all forms, except blackberry, due to seeds.  This was strawberry "J").
Cardamom Peach Muffin.  $2.50.
On my next visit, the daily muffin was cardamom peach.  I don't particularly care for cardamom, but I do like peaches, and, well, I wanted a muffin and had no other option.  So I got it, even though it looked a little ... deflated.
Inside the Cardamom Peach.
Once I took a few bites, it was easy to understand why the top didn't look properly risen.  It was certainly under-baked.  Inside wasn't just moist, it was raw, and quite gummy.  Not exactly enjoyable.  But just like the apple muffin, it was loaded up with fruit, large pieces of peach, which I did like.  And the top had a crunchy, sweet, streusel topping, although not as thick as on the other muffins I tried.

Overall, the least successful of all of the flavors I have tried, due to the improper baking, the flavoring I didn't like, and insufficient topping.
Maple Blueberry Muffin.  $2.50.
Next up ... maple blueberry!

The aroma coming off of this was amazing.  Sooo much maple.

I arrived right at 10am on a Saturday, when the muffins were fresh out of the oven, still in the muffin tin even.  It was piping hot.  Major bonus points for this.
Maple Blueberry: Insides.
On top was the same crumble topping as the others, slightly sweet, but for some reason, I really didn't care for it this time.  The top also wasn't crispy like I like.  Maybe it would crisp as it cooled?

Inside was crazy loaded up with blueberry, as you can see.  Points for having so much fruit, and this made it very moist, but, for some reason, I just didn't care for it.

So ... I didn't like the blueberry, I didn't like the crumble top, and maple and blueberry actually just didn't combine very well for me.  Not a winning flavor, but the appeal of a hot muffin was still there.

$2.50 was again a great price for a large, fresh muffin.  

Desserts

For desserts, they feature an assortment of homemade cookies (flavors changing daily) and blondies.  Neither of these are my favorites, but, eventually I had to try them.
Butterscotch Pecan Blondie.  $2.50.
Inside the display case with the muffin was a pile of blondies.  They didn't look like much, but I can never resist desserts, and I was already feeling a bit sad about the muffin choices.  I figured it wouldn't hurt to get a blondie for the road, just in case ...

This turned out to be a winning decision.  Sure, the blondie didn't look like anything special.  Just a blondie.  How good could it be?  Answer: amazing.

It was sweet, but not in a over-the-top cloyingly sweet sort of way.  The sweetness was a complex flavor, slightly caramelized, from butterscotch.  But there were no individual butterscotch chips, instead, the butterscotch flavor just permeated the whole thing.  There were chunks of pecans for crunch and a tiny pop of bitterness against the sweet.  It was perfectly cooked, and while it might have looked dry, it wasn't.  It was chewy in just the right way.

This thing really was amazing.  Yes, it was just a blondie.  But I'm quite certain it was the best blondie I've ever had.

It was also massive.  You could easily split this with a friend ... or two.  In my case, I meant to just take a bite when I got it, just to evaluate it at its freshest, and intended to eat it later and share it with Ojan.  I think I devoured half of it on the spot.  Whoops.

The $2.50 price tag was fine for such a massive treat.  I sorta wish they had a smaller size available, but then again, there is nothing wrong with eating half now, and half later.  I will certainly be back for another one of these!

Update: And indeed, I did return for another.  I was worried that now that I had expectations it wouldn't live up to them.  But, luckily for me, it did.  The blondie was still delicious, and still massive.  Since I had also picked up a slew of other treats, I only ate half of it, and stashed the other half away in my freezer.  I'm looking forward to the day that I decide to pull it out.  I think it would make be absolutely fabulous warm, topped with ice cream, a drizzle of caramel sauce, and whipped cream.  I can't wait!

Update #2: I pulled the chunk out of my freezer, let it defrost, and then put it in the toaster oven to warm it up.  I served it with a sweet cream ice cream with caramel swirl.  This was pretty much amazing.  Warm blondie and ice cream?  Oh yes.  The blondie sundae is a classic for a reason!  I now plan to get extra blondies whenever I visit, just to fill my freezer with them.
Peanut Butter Cookie. $3.
I'm not really a fan of cookies, but Ojan is, and he was craving peanut butter cookies, so he picked this.  I snuck a bite.

It was a hard style cookie, but the peanut butter flavor was strong, and I appreciated the bits of peanut in it.  If I liked hard cookies, I would like this.

Biscuits

Along with a muffin special of the day, and cookies of the day, The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen also offers up a biscuit of the day, featuring different cheeses, add-ins like ham, turkey, chicken, or even potatoes, and spicing like red pepper, thyme, basil.  I've tried unsuccessfully many times to get biscuits, as they are always sold out.  They seem to make a small number, and they are highly popular, at least, on weekends.  It took many visits before I was finally able to get one!
Jalapeño Cheddar Biscuit.  $2.50.
One weekend, I pulled chili out of the freezer to have later for dinner, and I really wanted a biscuit to pair with it.  I called ahead to find out what the biscuit of the day was.  Jalapeño Cheddar.  Perfect!  I was warned that there were only two left.  Now, it wasn't even 11am, and they only opened at 10am!  Less than an hour into service and only two biscuits left?  Ahhh.  So, I asked the person who answered the phone if she could set one aside for me, and promised I'd come claim it.  She happily agreed, and when I showed up an hour later, it was nicely set aside for me, labelled with my name.  The other one was long gone, so I think I made the right move.

Although I got it for my chili, I needed to try a bite on the spot.  The biscuit was good.  It didn't have quite the crumb I would have liked, as it was a moister style, and it didn't seem to have any buttermilk, which I always appreciate for the tang.  It was loaded with jalapeño though, nice size chunks, adding great flavor and something interesting to bite into.  The cheddar was also generous.  For a moist style biscuit, it was good, but not something I'd go out of my way for.

When I got home, I decided to heat it up in the toaster even, wrapped in foil, for a few minutes while my chili was simmering.  It transformed the biscuit.  The cheddar got all melty and totally, totally delicious.  Now it was a real winner, and something I'd certainly gladly eat again, although, only when warmed up.  It didn't even need the chili with it, it was good as is, or, uh, slathered with crème fraîche, which I may or may not have done.

The $2.50 price was fine for a fresh baked biscuit loaded with goodness.
Caramelized Onion, Fontina, & Thyme Biscuit.  $2.50.
As I mentioned, they are often sold out of biscuits, seemingly no matter how I early I arrive.  One day, I arrived around 11:30am, and there was one sole biscuit remaining.  I had to get it, because ... I could.  I wasn't even sure what I was going to do with it later, but I saw it as a rare opportunity, so I had to act on it.

Like before, I of course took a bite of it the moment I got it.  The overwhelming flavor was of thyme.  Not in a bad way, but, this was no secondary component of the biscuit.  Thyme was on the forefront, making it a very savory choice.

Also like before, I wasn't thrilled with it at room temperature, but, I brought it home and heated it up.  Again, instantly better.  The bits of cheese throughout got all melty.  I preferred the cheddar in my previous biscuit to the fontina, but the fontina wasn't bad.

The real reason I got this biscuit is that I adore caramelized onions, so I was really looking forward to those.  Sadly, I didn't really find any inside my biscuit.  I think there was one or two little pieces?  Certainly not a prominent ingredient.

And again, just like before, it was a moist style.  It didn't have the crumb I wanted, nor a buttermilk tang, but, it was a good biscuit, for this style of cakey biscuit.  I think it would be good made into a breakfast sandwich with a fried egg inside.

Sides

For side dishes, they have a basic salad, soups, housemade pickles, bags of chips, fries, crispy brussels sprouts, and a kale slaw.  Even if I didn't want a grilled cheese, I could still get sides, right?
Kale Slaw.  $4.50.
It may seem strange to go to a grilled cheese place to order a salad.  Particularly for me, as I don't really eat many salads.  But, I had a fantastic kale caesar salad a few weeks before, and I'd been craving kale salads ever since.  So the kale slaw just called out to me.

Described as "kale, jicama, fennel, red‏ bell peppers, red and green cabbage, and currants in a yogurt slaw dressing, toasted pepitas".

I actually wasn't quite sure what to expect.  I've had plenty of kale salads in my life, but most of the time, the kale is used like lettuce, in larger pieces.  This was actually chopped up for a slaw.

It was totally delicious.  There was the kale, obviously, and classic shredded cabbage (red and green), which you'd expect in a slaw.  Thinly sliced red peppers added a bit of sweetness and an additional pop of color.  I had mixed feelings on the jicama.  I like jicama, and I appreciated the juicy freshness it brought to the slaw, but, it also seemed soggy.  The currants were perfect for pops of additional sweetness, and I adored the crunch from the pepitas on top.  The dressing was light, didn't taste too much like yogurt, and was dressed enough to be juicy, but not overdressed.  I think there was perhaps some vinegar in there as well?  I was really glad there was no raw red onion.

Overall, this was pretty much exactly what I wanted, fresh and flavorful, a mix of textures and colors.  $4.50 for a large size side was fine.
Bread 'n' Butter Pickles.  $10.
I'm a pickle snob.  I freely admit it.  My great aunt makes the most amazing pickles ever, ranging from standard cucumber dills, to pickled beets, to the best dilly beans ever ... I could go on and on.  Her pickles are what I was raised on, so you can only imagine my confusion when I first encountered Vlasic or other store bough "pickles".  What?

Anyway, I always bring a stash of pickles back with me to San Francisco whenever I go visit home, and my mother kindly replenishes it from time to time, but I've really wanted to find some pickles out here that I like.  So, I try them all over the place.

I was intrigued by the bread and butters at The American, as my aunt's bread and butters are high on my list of favorites (although honestly, it is nearly impossible to pick a favorite!), so I grabbed a container to bring home and try out.

American Grilled Cheese's version are standard cucumber based pickles, in a basic vinegar and sugar base, with dill, tumeric, garlic, and horseradish.  This is fairly different from what I think of as bread and butters, besides the fact that they are sweet pickled cucumbers.  My aunt's version has peppers and onions, and no horseradish or dill.

The flavor was good, sweet but not too sweet, tangy but not too tangy, and it turns out, I did like the addition of the dill.  I didn't really taste horseradish distinctly.  They were sliced super thin, which makes sense for use inside the grilled cheese, but wasn't quite appropriate for munching.

$10 for a large container was a fine price for homemade pickles, and although I liked them, I wouldn't get them again, as they just weren't quite my style.
The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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