Griddled sandwiches have punctuated my life like crunchy applause ever since I was old enough to pick up my first oozing grilled cheese. But for much of my adulthood, I didn't make many at home — and the ones I did rarely flexed in creativity beyond piling a few ribbons of ham on top of sliced American or cheddar cheese.
Maybe it's because no one griddles a sandwich quite like a greasy-spoon diner or burger joint, where the fillings are simple and impeccably ratioed and the flat top infuses each buttered bread crevice with the essence of thousands of onions, burger patties and hash browns that came before.
My first real job at age 15 was at a suburban diner outside Chicago, where the mustachioed owner knew every customer by name, the curly fries tasted better than at Arby's and those coarse little paper dispenser napkins were no match for the buttery griddled rye — let alone formidable ooze of Swiss, burger grease and caramelized onions that trailed from every exemplary patty melt. They served an excellent tuna melt on rye, too, which almost definitely contained equal parts mayo and tuna. However, due to a typo when they set up their point-of-sale system, the sandwich forever rang up as a "tina melt." This never got old, by the way: "Order up: Tina melt at the window!"
Late-night patty melts and reasonable-hour reubens would infuse my 20s in Chicago with salty, buttered sustenance. In fact, the former would become my bellwether for decent burger joints and greasy spoons everywhere. From fancified versions with balsamic onions, remoulade, smoked gouda and bacon like the patty melt at Chicago's DMK Burger Bar, to the pastrami-, swiss- and kraut-topped variety at the Old Mill in Austin, Minnesota, to the dead-simple assemblage of sautéed onions, beef and melted American cheese on Texas toast I wolfed down at a Waffle House in New Orleans to soak up a few rounds of hurricanes — exceptional patty melts take up many guises.
After going months without diner or neighborhood bar food and deep into the Upper Midwest's seemingly infinite cloudy season, my husband and I took up the comforting mantle of griddling almost every sandwich we made. We started conservatively by zhushing up grilled cheese with his trademark sprinkling of garlic powder on the pan side of each bread slice. Soon enough, we were switching up the meats and griddling open-faced "tina melts" like pros.
On the whole, he sticks to the diner credo of simple, properly ratioed fillings; I'm a more restless omnivore. One day, I threw a little chopped kimchi on my grilled ham and cheese; on another, I slid a gently fried egg on top, puncturing the yolk a few times with my fork to ensure equitable ooze. I've grilled peanut butter and honey on thick wheat bread for breakfast and smeared grainy mustard mixed with cherry jam on my griddled turkey with gruyere at lunch. I've cooked down collard greens in red wine vinegar and piled them high on thick-cut ham smeared with mayo on both sides of each piece of bread.
On occasion, I'll alternate thin slabs of mozzarella and leftover pan-fried eggplant with a smear of tomato sauce on sturdy sourdough or pile sauteed mushrooms and spinach mixed with cream cheese (non-dairy works beautifully!) on thick seedy bread, which I'll griddle it in olive oil infused with a few fat garlic cloves.
In deference to the flat top, when griddling sandwiches, we almost always use a cast-iron skillet for its excellent heat distribution and built-in seasoning. (While I'm on the subject, the results are always best the day after we cooked bacon or steak in said skillet.) I prefer thickly-sliced sourdough or pan-bread loaves — though I don't mind an occasional holey bread situation, which allows pockets of oozing cheese to make direct pan contact and caramelize. A little tang — whether from mustard, sharp fruit compote or chopped fermented vegetables — jolts your tastebuds awake amid all that lovely fat and salt. But like a good dumpling or pizza, less is often more when it comes to add-ons with griddled sandwiches.
Patience, medium-low heat and plenty of rotating and flipping yield the best results. Beyond fully melting the cheese and evenly crisping the bread, it gives the other fillings enough time to warm through, which is crucial to a well-melded sandwich. I've called in late to Zoom meetings on more than one occasion because I underestimated sandwich griddling time. I regret nothing.
Lastly, you can't skimp on the fat, though I'm mostly agnostic about the form it takes. A thick pat of softened dairy or vegan butter or regular or vegan mayo lends both flavor and caramelization to your bread. If you're feeling extra fancy, sizzle the sandwich in a thin layer of olive oil with a few whole garlic cloves still in their papers, then rub their softened flesh all over the outside of the bread before eating.
The sole griddled sandwich I've yet to recreate at home this past year is, implausibly, the one I miss most of all. But it won't be long now 'til I'm posted up on the ripped old barstool of some 24-hour diner, strategically within arm's reach of those useless dispenser napkins, awaiting the arrival of the cylindrical red plastic basket cradling my first post-pandemic patty melt. The buttery rye and greasy beef will have made quick work of the now-transparent parchment basket liner as I lift the crunchy, oozy, savory-sweet handheld to my lips. All around me, the muted din of conversation, clattering plates and the sizzling griddle coalesce into a soundtrack that I'll never again take for granted.
Some things in life are indeed worth the wait.
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