The griddles have grown cold, the butter has congealed. As the 2nd 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational (a.k.a. the 2011 GCI) recedes into memory, the losers bandage their burned fingers and the victors savor their triumph.

After a tense battle in the Grilled Cheese Thunderdome, Mo-Chica (and soon Picca) chef Ricardo Zarate emerged victorious, his lamb and chorizo melt crushing whatever vegetarian sandwich Hot Knives' dished out. It was like Zarate had brought a bazooka to a wet noodle fight.

The real action was in the main competition, where hundreds of grilled cheese maniacs, most of them amateurs, put their spatulas to the Teflon. As an executive judge, we had the privilege of walking behind the lines, sampling as many sandwiches as our belly could (un)comfortably hold. Our record from last year was 82. We had hoped to surpass but lost count amid a fromage haze around #63.

[Photo gallery after the jump.]

For some reason, this year's sandwiches didn't seem as inspired or as interesting as last year's entries. Too many of them suffered from overmuchness. Maximalism gone awry, cursing meat-eaters and vegetarians equally. (Where omnivores turn to bacon, vegetarians lean on bell peppers.) After umpteen sandwiches stacked with multiple cheeses, salty meats and gooey condiments, we craved the crystalline simplicity of Wonder Bread and Kraft singles.

If the day belonged to anyone, it was not to an individual sandwich, but to a class of them: the Honey Pot division. This year, the dessert sandwich category came on surprisingly strong, wowing us with more creativity than we saw anywhere else. Blueberries were a hot trend, as were fig jams and compotes.

What makes the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich? Three elements:

1. Originality: Bacon is amazing, but unless you're doing something creative with it, reconsider. We saw some great twists, like a poutine sandwich and one made with rabbit and rattlesnake sausage.

2. Balance: Not too many ingredients! Each individual flavor should exist for a reason, and it should contribute to the overall effect without drowning out other flavors.

3. Technique: You can use the world's fanciest cheese and spread it on rare, artisanal bread baked only once a year on a Himalayan mountaintop, but if it's not properly warm and melty in the middle, forget about it.

That's why we gave our judge's award Apple & Cheddar, Nuthin' Better, a simple sandwich. Sharp cheddar and slivers of tart green apple on thick white bread that was crystallized on the outside (and this is what put it over the top) to brittle, sugary perfection. It's the little things that make the difference.

Full list of winners to come — when we've fully recovered.

LA Weekly