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It's the restaurant launched by a simple $5 sandwich, this Grilled Cheese Spot, this cubby hole of a gem that's as close to an NYC state of stomach as Orange County has ever experienced. The sandwich, of course, is the Starving Artist at the Crosby, a simple creation of white bread, Gruyere and mushrooms, served with a thimble of basil-spiked tomato soup, a brilliant Aron Habiger creation that never rose in price even as the Crosby made the push into high dining, that always maintained its singular awesomeness, and that starts the list at Habiger's latest restaurant.
318 W. 5th St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Region: Santa Ana
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The dive is the smaller brother of the Crosby—still employs nice hipsters; still features artsy design schemes (since all it accepts is cash, the Man In Black makes more than a few cameos); still pumps out grooving music courtesy of owners Chris Alfaro, Phil Nisco and Mark Yamaoka. But whereas the Crosby is a full restaurant, the Grilled Cheese Spot only serves sandwiches—six Habiger inventions, plus a build-your-own-sammy option for which eaters can choose from seven breads, 15 cheeses, nine veggies, six meats and the silkiest fried eggs this side of a crêperie. You can eat on two metal counters that line the walls, but there are no seats. You can order to go, but all you get to hold your meal is a cardboard box. This is food on the go, quick and cheap, and even though it's barely two weeks old, it has already hit a sandwich stride.
The namesake sandwich is a beast of delicate short ribs and oily taleggio on ciabatta, and just when you think Habiger tried a bit too hard, in come pickled red onions to perfectly cut the richness. The Dusk Til Dawn's name is strange—what does Gouda, bacon, fried eggs and grilled onions have to do with vampires?—but the fattiness of everything quickly zombifies the mind. And if you think the prices are a bit high—from $8 to $11—there's always the $7 customization option, the greatest local quick meal since the two-tacos-for-a-buck-plus-free-pineapple-juice special at Tacos El Chavito.
Can something as fiendishly simple as the Grilled Cheese Spot survive, especially in an area that's already a dining powerhouse that will only explode further in 2013? The lines have already gathered, the buzz still reverberates, and there's always that original Starving Artist, as magnificent as its previous incarnation. Remember that the two most famous foodstuffs on which Jesus appeared were a flour tortilla and a grilled-cheese sandwich, and you'll realize that the Grilled Cheese Spot is more than a quick meal—it's sandwich salvation.
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