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Food

The big cheese

Local chefs stick to a staple when concocting their menus

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Chef John Wu and his wife Hong came to the United States to pursue their dreams.

John’s was to be a chemist.

Hong’s was to run a restaurant.

After finishing his master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Texas El Paso, Wu opted to go with his wife’s plan, and in 2016, they opened Sizzle in Centennial. He had one condition: He would use the expertise he would have used to make chemical compounds to achieve balance between the flavors of Sizzle’s version of the grilled cheese sandwich.

“It’s a simple, homemade option,” Hong says. “It’s light, it’s something you can eat if you’re vegetarian, and it’s simple. Kids and adults like it.”

Food trends come and go in cycles, and a wave of grilled cheese-themed restaurants have come, and in some cases gone, in the Denver metro area over the last few years. But customers come back to the grilled cheese for a variety of reasons, some seeking a low-cost option, others looking for a melted, meatless choice to chew.

Wu and other area chefs have established a safe space for the foodie favorite on their menus by adding their own twists to the time-tested toastie.

Blends, balance and a bowl

Cheese isn’t a staple of Asian cuisine, but Wu says his version of the classic American sandwich is a fusion of Asian skill and American style. He doesn’t give away the recipe for his “SG Grilled Cheese,” other than revealing it has a soy base and that he uses a blend of American, Swiss and cheddar. For carnivores, Wu adds a sweet bratwurst or some honey baked ham.

At the Urban Egg’s locations in Highlands Ranch and Greenwood Village, balancing textures is as important as finding complementary flavors.

“It’s a balance of crunchy on the outside and a gooey inside,” says General Manager Brennan Price, alluding to the sourdough bread the Egg’s chefs base their sandwich on.

Price’s father and owner of the restaurants, Randy, says his restaurant’s take on the sandwich has been a customer favorite since the Highlands Ranch store opened 2 1/2 years ago. The Brennan’s version, they call it the “elevated grilled cheese,” features a blend of Havarti and Swiss cheeses, paired with fresh basil and tomato. But one last ingredient sets their sandwich apart — Colorado honey.

“It adds a level of sweetness that really complements the basil. Those two ingredients together make all the difference,” Brennan says.

Any entree needs a good side dish, and the grilled cheese can usually be found surrounded by French fries or Brennan’s favorite dipping dish: a bowl of soup. Indeed, though each restaurant puts their own spin on the sandwich, one thing working in their favor is the fact that most of their customers have been eating the fare since childhood.

“It’s comfort food, for sure,” he says.

The Seattle sound of sandwiches

Alamo Drafthouse chef and menu designer Seth Rexroad describes his cheesy concoction as “comfort food you can eat in the dark,” a significant stipulation for his movie-going clientele.

“For me, there’s nothing I’d rather have than a grilled cheese in one hand and a beer in the other while I’m watching a movie,” he says. “You can’t go wrong.”

The “Grown Up Grilled Cheese” combines goat and mozzarella cheeses, with spinach and tomato rounding out the edges. Ian Patrick, the chef at the theater chain’s Littleton location, says his grill typically has one or more of the toasties on its surface at any given time.

“It’s definitely a standard,” Patrick says. “It’s all about the tang from the goat cheese.”

Rexroad says he constantly monitors food trends around the U.S. and noticed a surge in grilled cheese sandwiches around the early 2000s that later fizzled out. He put it on the Drafthouse menu in 2013 and tried different variations throughout the years, including wrapping the sandwiches in bacon and filling them with macaroni and cheese.

Gimmicks and interesting ingredients aside, he says he’s confident the sandwich will always be in heavy rotation.

“I think of it like grunge music,” Rexroad says. “It’s all rock ‘n’ roll, it just keeps coming back in different forms.”

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