Few foods have a higher enjoyment-to-effort ratio than the grilled cheese sandwich—it's a fact as true as the sun rising in the east. As any college freshman knows, you don't need much to make a grilled cheese: just a heat source, such as, say, your roommate's iron, to turn butter, bread and cheese into a product 10 times greater than the sum of its parts.
If grilled cheese has a comfort-food equal, it may just be macaroni and cheese. At the Irvine Spectrum outpost of the Melt—a San Francisco-based grilled cheese chain founded by Silicon Valley types and James Beard recipient Michael Mina—the staff makes a mac-and-cheese grilled cheese sandwich. Yes, that's right. And it tastes exactly how you think it would. The two foods have a similar bent, so the effect is a lot like casting Michael Cera and Jesse Eisenberg in the same movie to play the same neurotic-yet-lovable nerd who can never quite get the girl. You either shriek with delight at the prospect, or you groan that it has come to this.
Apart from that sandwich, which is, by the way, called “The Mac Daddy,” the Melt knows to not mess with what we already know and love. It stops short of using Kraft Singles or Velveeta, but for the base model, called “The Classic,” Cheddar is peeled slice by slice from a gigantic square block. The Melt does other variations of the basic grilled cheese, some using sourdough rather than white; Swiss, pepperjack, Fontina and Provolone are used in place of Cheddar, yet the difference in flavor is less important than the temperature—all need to be eaten while hot for optimum gooeyness.
For its menu of served-all-day breakfast sandwiches, and perhaps for no other reason than because it makes for a series of cool-looking posters, the Melt offers a version of egg-in-the-hole, wherein an egg-sized hole is removed from the bread of a standard grilled cheese. The hole is then plugged with a freshly cracked egg as it solidifies on the griddle. There's even a waffle version, which is actually better and sweeter, as it's mopped with maple syrup.
Also offered are specials that feel less like a grilled cheese and more like its upscale cousin, the panini. The Shorty, a short rib-stuffed sandwich, is better than it needs to be, with strips of the unctuous braised beef slightly perfumed of wine. And for November, there's a Thanksgiving-themed sandwich, with a cranberry sauce-smeared slice of turkey, stuffing and Cheddar pressed between slices of sourdough dusted with poultry seasoning. It's one of the better versions offered in the county, this despite the inherent irony of eating cubes of bread between two slices of more bread.
The Melt operates in a fast-food-minded assembly line. Three industrial-sized panini presses that resemble repurposed Wall-E robots do most of the hard work. They automatically flip open, beeping, when the sandwiches are done. The sandwiches are then halved, placed into a basket with a fistful of potato chips that taste suspiciously like an off-brand knock-off of Lays, then served in a white room with metal stools. A single spigot dispenses three flavors of cane sugar-sweetened soda.
There are actual hand blenders connected to the soup pots, suggesting those are made in-house. The tomato is as integral to a grilled cheese meal as salsa is to tacos, and the Melt's tastes about an octave higher than Campbell's Cream of Tomato. A sausage-and-pepper soup seems as though someone blended an Italian sausage-and-pepper sandwich into a frappe, which is probably what the staff did to make it, since the smooth, brown brew contains no discernible chunks of sausage or peppers. The best soup is the Sweet Corn Tortilla—a smooth, bright, yellow distillation of the juiciest ear of corn you had last summer. The salads, however, tend to be overly drenched with lip-puckering dressing, and thus should be avoided.
With the Grilled Cheese Spot in Santa Ana and the countless food trucks that specialize in the sandwich, if there's anything new here worth noting, it's the LCD screen that shows a live feed on the status of your order. Yours will be the one next to your initials, which the computers gleaned from your credit card. You can also wave your phone over a QR scanner to pick up your online or smartphone order. The involvement of the former head of retail operations for Apple probably has a lot to do with the high-tech approach to selling the most low-tech of foods, as well as why waiting for your sandwich at the Melt might feel a lot like waiting for someone to fix your MacBook at the Genius Bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.