Q&A: What makes a perfect grilled cheese sandwich? We ask the chef behind the Grilled Cheese Truck

The Cheesy Mac and Rib from the Grilled Cheese Truck.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

You might say it began as a cheesy dream, or at least a cheese-filled one. Dave Danhi, a former chef at fine dining restaurants including the Water Grill, entered a grilled cheese invitational back in 2009, and the sheer size of the crowd stunned him. His entry, a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with macaroni and cheese, pulled barbecue pork, caramelized onions and sharp cheddar, didn’t take the prize. But it did spark an idea.

“I thought, ‘Maybe the world needs a grilled cheese food truck,’” Danhi recalls. With that, the Grilled Cheese Truck was born. Eight years later, the operation has three trucks driving around Southern California, from Santa Barbara to Orange County. Plans for brick-and-mortar outlets — and interest in expansion to Britain and China — are in the works.

This week? You can find a truck parked at the Los Angeles Times Night Market at Grand Park, part of our month-long Food Bowl celebration. The market, running from May 10 through 14, will feature five consecutive nights of some of the city’s best food, along with drinks and plenty of music. The Grilled Cheese Truck should be there every night except Saturday. I recently spoke with Danhi by phone to talk about the truck, Night Market — and all things grilled cheese.

L.A. has this reputation for being focused on health and the latest dietary trends when it comes to food. So why do we love grilled cheese so much?

It’s comfort food; grilled cheese is the epitome of comfort food. You have this sandwich that everybody identifies with in a great way — it’s a sensory memory thing that takes us back to childhood. I have yet to run into someone who has a bad memory of grilled cheese.

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What makes the perfect grilled cheese sandwich?

You have three main components. Well, actually four. You have bread, butter and cheese. And, to me — this may sound so wrong when I say it, but I truly believe it — there’s got to be a lot of love put in the sandwich. This is one of those creations that really takes on the attitude it’s made with.

So, starting out, you want a good quality bread with a good stiff bread — nothing over-processed or gooey. The cheese needs to be a good quality cheese, and that can be anything from a sharp cheddar to mascarpone. And for the butter — this is a signature of ours — I do a mixture of butter and mayonnaise.

The mayonnaise raises the smoking temperature, so you can cook it better, so if you’ve got a lot of stuff inside, it can all get nice and hot, and it makes it a little crisper. And you want butter because of the butter flavor. That to me is the trick. Then just cook it nice and slow.

Are there any grilled cheese no-nos?

I would definitely say that when it comes to grilled cheese, more is not better. There needs to be balance between the cheese and the bread; too much butter and the sandwich is greasy; and you don’t want too much bread. It all comes down to quality and balance.

Grilled cheese is a great way to make people happy. I call it a culinary common denominator. Everyone identifies with it in a happy way.

— Dave Danhi, founder and chef, the Grilled Cheese Truck

How many different creations have you come up with since starting the Grilled Cheese Truck?

I would say over eight years, we’ve done at least 250, at a minimum.

How many actual sandwiches? And how much cheese?

I would say we’ve probably done 2 million sandwiches. We’ve done Coachella and some other big venues over the years. And close to 200,000 pounds of cheese. I’ve been accused of making America fat again.

Where do you find your grilled cheese inspiration?

Sometimes when we’re driving, I’ll just turn off the radio and think, ‘What has cheese in it that I can turn into a sandwich?’

I’ve done that with things like our fried chicken and waffle melt. I’ve come up with a French onion soup melt. It can be an iconic type of dish that will get me going, or sometimes the inspiration of a single ingredient, such as a great pork loin or even something as simple as a banana.

What can we look forward to at the Night Market?

I will always point people toward the cheesy mac ’n’ rib, that’s our big one. But the new menu, there’s some fun stuff on there. I did a new dessert sandwich on there with peanut butter, mascarpone, bananas and potato chips. It came out phenomenal.

Sounds like a sandwich Elvis himself would love.

Add bacon to it and you’ve got a winner.

Bakery-cafe Clementine celebrates Grilled Cheese Month for the 16th year. This year's theme is the "Periodic Table of Grilled Cheese."

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Twitter: @noellecarter


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