What is a grilled cheese sandwich? It's comfort food. It's warm and retro-yet-now and endlessly customizable. It's something that can be lowbrow, high-end and everything in between.
How is it defined? For the purposes of this guide, we're saying a grilled cheese is a vegetarian sandwich that's served hot and consists of 80%-90% melted cheese on sliced bread that has been pan-fried or griddled. Plain and simple. If it's mostly pulled pork, or short ribs, that's not a grilled cheese -- that's lovely hot pulled pork or short rib sandwich with cheese. Is that good? Yes. No doubt. That just doesn't make it right for this list.
For those times you're craving rich-fatty-carbohydrate-heavy goodness, there are lots of local spots willing to feed your need; and we suggest one of the following. Having meticulously sampled them all (and then some) and gained a few pounds in the process (because we care!) we present the Top 10 Best Grilled Cheese Sandwiches in Los Angeles. We still haven't quite figured out why it's called grilled cheese, when there's rarely a grill involved, but we're willing to let that one go.
It goes without saying that Zoe Nathan's top-notch bakery and cafe serves a grilled cheese that cannot help but highlight its own artisan bread with a large crumb and chewy crust. Yes, this one is technically made on a panini press, which isn't our favorite treatment, but with such well sourced, high-end ingredients it's impossible to resist. The overstuffed plate-full is redolent with the earthy tang of one of California's finest cheeses, Fiscalini cheddar. Our only quibble is that the wonderfully generous portion somehow manages to be a bit greasy -- reminding us that even in such a calorie-fest category, one can go over the top. Served with a plain mixed green salad. 1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 451-2311.
This is for everyone who spent their childhood on the beach, because there is nothing quite as kid-friendly or nostalgic. It's sunny-day perfection. The triple decker of sunset-orange cheese is salty just from the air and carries a faint and thoroughly expected taste of the seafood being fried nearby. As L.A. as can be. Normally, the gritty crunch of sand in your food isn't a good thing, but here it's part of the joy of the American cheese on slightly charred white bread (wheat available as well) rendition. Does it come with fries? Of course it does. 28128 Pacific Coast Highway. Malibu; (310) 457-2503.
This remarkably decadent sandwich will leave your fingers glistening when you lift it. The indulgently large slices of fine-crumb pain de mie will have collapsed under the weight of the gloriously pungent, creamy Cheddar cheese. While there is a bit of a cult following for Joan's pickles, in this case they're a touch too sweet to do the job of cutting through this grande gras. Eating an entire sandwich should send you right back to the gym from whence you came, but it's worth it. Joan's on Third, 8350 W. Third St., Los Angeles; (323) 655-2285.
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We love that part of the appeal here is the experience. For the as yet un-jaded, waiting in line in front of a cartoonishly colored catering truck for a freshly made sandwich on the side of a street -- whether it be during a dull day at the office or after a few drinks -- is still a sort of bonding experience worth seeking out. What you get for your time is an mediocre but satisfying sandwich. Manageably sized, reasonably priced, full flavor, lots of options. Can't do better. Don't forget an order of Tater-Tots while you're there. The truck roams, so check online for daily locations.
6. City Tavern:
Something about chef Jessica Christensen's beguiling pimento cheese twist on the classic makes us think of a beloved small-town lottery winner who went in for a big-city makeover. It's a million bucks worth of very down-to-earth and approachable. Pimento cheese, a Southern staple, is a creamy mess of sweet-charred red peppers swirled into '70s-era cocktail-party cheese dip. Heavenly stuff. When coupled with a beer -- another thing City Tavern does right -- this is one of the best things going. 9739 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 838-9739.
You want comfort food? Close your eyes. Take a bite. Don't be dainty, don't be shy. This one is easy. As long as you take easy to mean a crispy-melty, sharp and mild mouthful of delicious. Two types of cheese -- Cheddar and jack -- on perky, dill-flecked slices of bread that are buttery without being greasy, and have not been completely flattened by an overly eager line cook. Called the After School Special, it's most certainly special. Served with a luscious, rustic, creamy tomato-fennel soup. 911 Seward St., Los Angeles; (323) 461-3663.
4. Apple Pan:
An off-menu item. It's offered with your choice of Cheddar or Swiss on white, wheat or rye. The Apple Pan isn't known for dizzying variation, just stoic consistency. It would be hard to suggest sitting at the counter of this L.A. landmark for a GC, when the burgers are so great, but who knows -- maybe you're avoiding meat or want an appetizer before your meal. Either which way, as our dining companions all declared, "Now that's a grilled cheese!" Unlike some of its fancy counterparts, this isn't a huge oozing mass; it offers no-frills, faultless, bites of melted cheese on crispy sandwich bread that has been slathered with mayo instead of butter -- the secret ingredient we should all embrace. Served with crinkle-cut hamburger pickles and pitted jumbo black olives. 10801 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A.; (310) 475-3585.
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A fully realized, totally adult take with an aggressive European flair. With a trio of strong cheeses, in this case gruyere, tallegio and raclette, the handsome sandwich is enhanced with a side of whole-grain mustard and a risqué cauliflower floret pickle. At once savory and sugary, salty and crunchy (the seeds in the bread will do that), each bite is different, unlike the sometimes monotony of most versions. This is a dense, hearty interpretation worth seeking out. 7253 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; (323) 851-7120.
2. Fred 62:
Retro-themed coffee shops probably are required by law and good sense to include a GC, but they can be a bit of an afterthought. At Fred 62 in Los Feliz, it's not. They absolutely knock this beauty out of the park. Far and away the most photogenic variation, with its windowpane potato chip toothpick garnish. The three slices of Cheddar are lusciously bonded to round, white bread. The pickle chunk served on the side is a classic garlic dill that does the sandwich proud, adding another layer of flavor. While we think of coleslaw as a natural companion, Fred 62 is the only restaurant on this list that specifically offers it as a side option. 1850 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; (323) 667-0062.
And for our top pick...
The 3 Cheese Grilled Brioche Sandwich. A balancing act of childhood whimsy and adult savoir faire. A sublime rarity that sets Local's sandwich at the top of our list. Served on burnished brioche that is neither too thick nor too thin; the trio of Jack, Swiss and Cheddar cheeses are garnished with subtly tangy oven-roasted tomatoes and a tiny hint of carmelized onion. An additional bonus is the barely sweet, brick-red chipotle ketchup served on the side. Not typical, not necessary, but exceptional. Comes with lightly dressed mixed greens so you can justify eating the whole thing in one sitting. 2943 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 662-4740.
So that's 10, but we couldn't stop there. No. We couldn't and won't because we would be remiss if we didn't at least mention Campanile, to whom we offer our Lifetime Achievement Award, for having conceived of, instituted and perfected fine-dining-yet-casual gourmet grilled cheese.
Runners-up: Say Cheese, Mercantile, Original, Grilled Cheese and Cupcakes, Johnny Rockets, Cube, Swingers, Black Cat, Lazy Ox, Toast Bakery, In N' Out, Gram and Papas, Upper West, The Oaks Gourmet Market and The Foundry.
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