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I Melt With You


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#1 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 02:08 PM

hspace="8" align="left">by Janet A. Zimmerman

My first real job after leaving graduate school was in the Bank of America Center in downtown San Francisco. Like most liberal-arts-educated, underemployed ex-academicians, I made only enough money to get by. My lunches were leftovers or tuna sandwiches brought from home. But once every couple of weeks, I'd splurge and treat myself to a patty melt.

In the lowest level of the BofA building was a cafeteria of the sort that I came to realize was ubiquitous in large office buildings and hospitals: subsidized, with various stations -- a grill, a hot line, a sandwich station and a salad bar. The first time I ventured down there (I'd forgotten to bring a lunch or had nothing to bring), I felt a prick of shame and self-pity. No one in my department ate there, despite the lunchtime stream of secretaries from my floor picking up sandwiches for their bosses.

At the grill, though, they offered a patty melt, redemption for countless cafeteria faults. It didn't take long for me to discover that only if you ordered a rare burger did they cook it from scratch (anything else was precooked and just finished on the grill), so although I prefer hamburgers cooked a little more, my unfailing order became a patty melt, rare. It took awhile to cook; I'd pull out a book and catch up on a few pages while keeping an eye on the progress -- the patty grilling while the onions sizzled on the flattop, next to the rye bread that crisped while the Swiss cheese warmed and softened on top. The result was reliably perfect: a fresh, hot patty melt (even better, it was subsidized by my employer).

In time, I made friends at work and was promoted. The promotion came with a large enough raise to upgrade my lunch splurges; on most Fridays (after too many drinks and not enough sleep most Thursday nights) my friends and I would slouch off to the grill down the street, known for its Bloody Marys and burgers. The drinks were good; the burgers were . . . okay. They were fine, really, but they weren't patty melts.

The fact is inescapable: when compared with a burger, the patty melt is superior. Don't get me wrong; I like burgers when they're well made, with good toppings. But that's the thing: a burger is defined by what else is on it -- a cheeseburger, a mushroom burger, a bacon burger -- or by its ostensible origin -- a French burger, a Southwestern burger. A burger is the sum of its parts, not an entity unto itself, as is the patty melt. The patty melt needs no condiments, no regional variations, no additions. It just is.

+ + +

Both The Food Lover's Companion and The Food Chronology have plummeted in my estimation: neither includes a mention of the patty melt. (Both have entries for the hamburger, and Food Lover's also includes the Reuben sandwich.) Search the Internet for the history of the patty melt, and you come up empty. Apparently, no one cares when and how the patty melt came to be, who gave birth to this love child of the grilled cheese sandwich and the burger. Theories abound on who first put burger to bun and introduced the ancestor of today's hamburger. Hot debates rage about whether the Reuben was the invention of Arthur Reuben of New York's Reuben's Deli or of a poker-playing Omaha grocer named Reuben Kay. But the patty melt slipped into the repertoire of diner specials without notice, much less fanfare. No one writes conjectural histories about it; when it's mentioned at all, it's as a variation of the hamburger. This is misguided. If I had to imagine the origins of the melt, I'd lean toward this scenario:

A customer -- a traveling salesman, let's say -- walks into a diner sometime in the 40's. He sees the grillman flipping a griddled sandwich on rye bread. Intrigued, he asks what it is. "A Reuben sandwich," the cook answers. "It's the latest rage, from Reuben's Deli in New York." ("You're wrong -- it's from Omaha," a woman's voice calls out from the back of the kitchen.)

"What's in it?" the salesman asks.

"Corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut." ("Russian dressing!" says the voice from the back.)

Maybe the salesman is a patriotic American who eschews all things German during the war years; maybe he just doesn't like sauerkraut. "Could you make one with some of those grilled onions on it instead?" he asks.

"I could," comes the laconic reply. "But I'm out of corned beef."

Undeterred, the salesman suggests, "How about you put one of those hamburger patties on it, then?"

The cook pauses, lifts an eyebrow. "Sure. You don't like it, though, you still have to pay for it."

"It's a deal," says the salesman. "Except," he adds in a whisper, "please don't put Russian dressing on it, okay?"

"Not a chance," says the cook. "She's crazy."

If the salesman had been a local and returned to order the sandwich again and again, history might have remembered him. If the cook had been more imaginative, perhaps he would have given the sandwich a catchy name and legends would have started to form. As it was, the cook made it for the salesman, and later tried it himself. He liked it enough to add to the Specials menu from time to time, especially when he had too many onions and not enough sauerkraut. His daughter -- I've decided that's who it was in the back -- kept trying to get him to add Russian dressing because she'd bought a case of gallon bottles by mistake, but he held firm. (Hey, it's my history. No Russian dressing.)

+ + +

Despite the lack of a tradition, an official history or an "authentic" recipe, the patty melt is remarkable for the stability of its preparation. Occasionally, a spiritual descendent of that daughter tries to force Russian dressing on it. Once in a while, you find a specious, non-Swiss cheese insinuating its way between the rye bread and onions. But when you order a patty melt, you mostly know what you're getting. The Reuben might come in for bastardization (turkey Reubens, pastrami Reubens), but it's rare to find a melt assaulted in such a way. Why tamper with perfection?

The Platonic ideal of the patty melt starts with a slice of rye bread topped with a thin layer of Swiss cheese. On top of that goes a hot hamburger patty, sautéed onions, and another thin layer of cheese. Ending, of course, with another slice of bread. The bread is buttered and the sandwich goes on a heated griddle so that the bread gets golden brown and the cheese melts. Crunchy bread, melty cheese, onions and beef. Simple, pure, perfect.

Which is not to say that every patty melt in the real world is a good one. Common faults include improperly cooked or insufficient onions or only one layer of cheese, which diminish the power of the patty melt but aren't fatal. But sometimes you get a patty melt so bad, you want to cry for the injustice of it.

My speculative history of the patty melt came to me after an unfortunate experience at a bar and grill, where I ordered a patty melt and my date ordered a Reuben. When we got our order, we realized that they'd switched the set-ups for the sandwiches; my hamburger patty ended up on the sandwich with sauerkraut and Russian dressing, and his corned beef ended up on my patty melt prep. He was content to keep them, and why not? He had corned beef, Swiss cheese and onions on rye. I had a burger with sauerkraut and Russian dressing. I insisted on sending them back to be corrected. (The relationship was doomed.)

And there was a popular burger chain in the San Francisco area whose "patty melt" came on plain, cold rye bread. Not grilled, not griddled, not even toasted. Inadequate onions, and one lone slice of barely melted cheese, which congealed as I tried to eat it.

But the good memories far outweigh the bad ones: early morning patty melts consumed after the bars closed; road trip patty melts when the only restaurant around was Denny's or one of its clones, making a patty melt the only rational dinner choice; the defining moment of grown-up-hood, when my mom let me order a patty melt for breakfast. I don't remember when I first tried one, but I do recall the first time I ever had a patty melt made at home.

I was in college; a fellow philosophy major (well, the only other philosophy major besides me) and I had a few hours to kill between classes. She lived close to campus, so we walked to her house for lunch. "Let's make patty melts" were words I'd never heard before. It had never occurred to me that one could make them at home. But we did, or, more precisely, she did. I sliced cheese.

I didn't begin making patty melts at home right away after that; in fact, it was years before I did. Grilled cheese, yes ("grilled cheese sandwich" is a misnomer, but "griddled cheese sandwich" just doesn't have the right cadence, so grilled it is) -- grilled cheese sandwiches have seen me through lean times and heartbreaks. Tuna melts were a frequent weekend lunch or easy dinner. Even the occasional Reuben came out of my kitchen; despite the essential imbalance in that sandwich -- too skewed toward salt and sour; not enough sweet -- I do like it (hold the Russian dressing, please).

My family didn't make hamburgers at home, except for rare summertime outdoor dinners. Burgers were for restaurants, for special occasions. Cooking hamburger patties at home wasn't part of my repertoire, despite that singular college experience. My series of older, unventilated kitchens in San Francisco apartments discouraged me from starting. But the other week I was wandering through the grocery store, searching more for inspiration than ingredients, and I spied the guys in back packaging ground beef (I like to think they'd just ground it, but my imagination isn't that strong). I thought, "I'll make a burger." I compiled a mental list of necessities: tomatoes, pickles, buns. I picked up a small package of ground chuck and started toward the bread section when it struck me. I could make a patty melt. I had everything in my kitchen already -- rye bread, onions, Gruyere. No other purchases necessary.

I could make a patty melt.

I sailed through the 10-items-or-fewer line (I love my grocery store for its grammatically correct signs) with my beef. I formed the patty and salted it. I sautéed onions, sliced cheese. Heated a cast iron skillet and a griddle. Cooked and assembled, and cooked again. Making a patty melt isn't difficult, but it is time-consuming. Timing is essential, and you can't rush it. As I bit into my sandwich, I felt a kinship with my imaginary salesman, admiration for every grill cook who'd ever made me a patty melt, and gratitude for every bite.

+ + +

Patty Melt (makes one)
5 oz. ground chuck (more or less, depending on the size of your bread; if you have the time and equipment, grinding your own beef elevates the sandwich to a higher plane)
1 small onion
Two slices of rye bread
Swiss cheese (Gruyere or Emmenthaler are my recommendations, but even supermarket Swiss cheese works) -- sliced thin or grated; you need enough for a thin layer on each slice of bread
Butter
Salt
  1. Form the beef into an oval patty slightly larger than the bread slices. Place on a rack and salt both sides heavily. Let rest.

  2. Meanwhile, slice the onion thin. Heat some butter in a small skillet and sauté the onion until it's very soft and beginning to brown. Set aside.

  3. Heat a cast iron skillet (or your preferred burger cooking vessel).

  4. Heat a griddle or large skillet over medium low heat. Butter one side of each slice of bread and lay the slices buttered side down on the griddle. Distribute the cheese evenly over the two pieces of bread. Spread the onions over the cheese on one piece of the bread -- not both, or final assembly is a nightmare.

  5. While the bread begins to brown and the cheese melts, cook the hamburger patty however you like it. I think medium-rare to medium works best, but the patty melt is forgiving.

  6. When the meat is done, remove it to the rack and let it rest for a couple of minutes. Place the patty on the slice of bread with onions and top with the other slice. If you've timed it right, the sandwich should need just another minute or so on each side to turn deep golden brown and become the Platonic ideal of a patty melt.

  7. Eat, enjoy. Thank the salesman.

* * *


Janet A. Zimmerman (aka JAZ) is food writer and culinary instructor based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an eGullet Society manager.

#2 Chris Hennes

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 02:24 PM

That was lovely... except now I want a Reuben. With Russian dressing, please. :biggrin:

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#3 Beth E.

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 03:27 PM

I wasn't even hungry when I started reading this! Now, well that's another story.

#4 heidih

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 04:39 PM

Thanks for a great memory boost. This was the food of choice after a long day of "back to school" shopping including the dreaded "uniforms". I don't think my son has ever had one. Maybe I need to remedy that. On another note I have to ask what the picture is at the beginning of your piece. I just can't come up with anything?!?

#5 Domestic Goddess

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 08:18 PM

Thank you for such a wonderful read. I just ate breakfast (Diniguan - Filipino blood stew) but I got hungry after reading this. I am copying down your recipe and will make the Patty Melt sandwich soon. Maraming salamat!
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#6 Keith Orr

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 09:05 PM

I love patty melts. I make them at home a couple of times a year. Good rye bread, gruyere cheese and like the article says "grind your own beef".

#7 JAZ

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 10:37 PM

On another note I have to ask what the picture is at the beginning of your piece. I just can't come up with anything?!?

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I think it's a meat grinder. But Dave the Cook did the artwork. Dave?

As I mentioned in the recipe, and Keith Orr reiterated, grinding your own beef makes an amazing difference. It's kind of a pain, but if you only make these once in a while, I think it's worth making them as well as you can.

#8 Pierogi

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Posted 05 February 2008 - 11:13 PM

Finally......FINALLY........a kindered spirit that recognizes that a burger, while it can be sublime (In 'N' Out, double double with grilled onions, anyone?) and a good Reuben is a thing of beauty, a patty melt is absolute Nirvana on a plate. My ground beef meal of choice. With a side of onion rings, please. Good onion rings, from fresh battered, fresh onions, not minced & chopped & frozen, please.

Now I know what I'm having for lunch tomorrow. Mercifully, and very surprisingly in the culinary wasteland that is the area around my work place, there is a burger joint that makes a better than average patty melt, and decent onion rings.
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#9 Kim Shook

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Posted 06 February 2008 - 11:48 AM

Thanks for reminding me. I used to have patty melts all the time in high school with gravy and fries on the side! I'll have one very soon! Lovely article!

#10 heidih

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Posted 06 February 2008 - 03:46 PM

On another note I have to ask what the picture is at the beginning of your piece. I just can't come up with anything?!?

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I think it's a meat grinder. But Dave the Cook did the artwork. Dave?

As I mentioned in the recipe, and Keith Orr reiterated, grinding your own beef makes an amazing difference. It's kind of a pain, but if you only make these once in a while, I think it's worth making them as well as you can.

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Thanks- you gave the right perspective, and now I can't figure out why I would have thought it was anything else. Agree also on the grinding your own meat. It gives you such control and always seems to result in a more "meaty" as opposed to "mushy" tasting product.

#11 Dave the Cook

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Posted 06 February 2008 - 04:33 PM

On another note I have to ask what the picture is at the beginning of your piece. I just can't come up with anything?!?

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I think it's a meat grinder. But Dave the Cook did the artwork. Dave?

As I mentioned in the recipe, and Keith Orr reiterated, grinding your own beef makes an amazing difference. It's kind of a pain, but if you only make these once in a while, I think it's worth making them as well as you can.

View Post


Thanks- you gave the right perspective, and now I can't figure out why I would have thought it was anything else. Agree also on the grinding your own meat. It gives you such control and always seems to result in a more "meaty" as opposed to "mushy" tasting product.

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Yep. Here's a reduced version of the original:

Posted Image

Freshly ground beef is a revelation, whether it's in a burger, a patty melt or a meatloaf.

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Eat more chicken skin.


#12 mizducky

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Posted 07 February 2008 - 12:22 AM

This article so piqued my curiosity that I did some extreme Googling, and unearthed this thread on another food forum on the history of the patty melt. The following quote comes near the end of the thread:

Saveur Magazine's Top 100 List for 2001 had as #84
"Best Variation on the Hamburger"
Their wriote up says it was created by William "Tiny" Naylor sometime in the 40's or 50's at his chain of Southern California coffee shops called Tiny Naylor's (they say he also may be the inventor of pop-up plate servers, refrigerated drawers, and the open kitchen)
They describe it as a hamburger patty covered with melted swiss cheese and a heap of sauteed onions served on grilled rye bread. They have a recipe in the issues as well from his grand-daughter Jennifer Naylor who is chef at Granita in Malibu and serves the patty melt at Sunday brunch.


And who knows what other claims to first invention might still be floating around out there.

I blush to confess that the patty melt never registered on my personal food radar all that much. No doubt it was on the menus of many diners I'd eaten at over the years, but nobody around me ever got them, so I didn't think to. And it probably didn't help matters that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool reuben fan, and that's what I nearly always get in those kinds of places.

But now I'm feeling inspired to deepen my appreciation of the patty melt. Next time I do a diner, I'm doing the melt.

#13 Chris Hennes

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Posted 07 February 2008 - 09:11 AM

I've never had a patty melt "in the wild" so I had a go at making one for dinner last night. What style of rye do you recommend for this creation? I used a dense artisinal rye that I thought took over the sandwich and rendered any fillings that might have been in it moot: the bread was just too dense, too full-flavored. Do you use more of a standard grocery store rye?

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#14 JAZ

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Posted 07 February 2008 - 02:46 PM

This article so piqued my curiosity that I did some extreme Googling, and unearthed this thread on another food forum on the history of the patty melt. The following quote comes near the end of the thread:

Saveur Magazine's Top 100 List for 2001 had as #84
"Best Variation on the Hamburger"
Their wriote up says it was created by William "Tiny" Naylor sometime in the 40's or 50's at his chain of Southern California coffee shops called Tiny Naylor's (they say he also may be the inventor of pop-up plate servers, refrigerated drawers, and the open kitchen)
They describe it as a hamburger patty covered with melted swiss cheese and a heap of sauteed onions served on grilled rye bread. They have a recipe in the issues as well from his grand-daughter Jennifer Naylor who is chef at Granita in Malibu and serves the patty melt at Sunday brunch.


And who knows what other claims to first invention might still be floating around out there.

View Post


Interesting, Ellen. Although I did a pretty thorough Internet search, I didn't run across that exchange, and a search for William Tiny Naylor doesn't result in any patty melt mentions. But I wasn't obsessed enough to do a library archive search, so I'll freely admit I could have missed a theory or two. Makes me want to go look up that back issue of Saveur.

#15 JAZ

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Posted 07 February 2008 - 02:52 PM

I used a dense artisinal rye that I thought took over the sandwich and rendered any fillings that might have been in it moot: the bread was just too dense, too full-flavored. Do you use more of a standard grocery store rye?

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I use a light rye from the supermarket, so yes, it's not very assertive. It's sliced relatively thin as well, so it stays in the background. I like caraway seeds, but that's optional.

#16 ChefCrash

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Posted 08 February 2008 - 08:10 PM

Saveur Magazine's Top 100 List for 2001 had as #84
"Best Variation on the Hamburger"
Their wriote up says it was created by William "Tiny" Naylor sometime in the 40's or 50's at his chain of Southern California coffee shops called Tiny Naylor's (they say he also may be the inventor of pop-up plate servers, refrigerated drawers, and the open kitchen)
They describe it as a hamburger patty covered with melted swiss cheese and a heap of sauteed onions served on grilled rye bread. They have a recipe in the issues as well from his grand-daughter Jennifer Naylor who is chef at Granita in Malibu and serves the patty melt at Sunday brunch.


Maybe so, but I prefer JAZ's reality. :smile:

Nice piece Janet.

#17 JoshRountree

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Posted 11 February 2008 - 01:36 PM

I may be opening Pandora's Box, and this might not be the right place to ask this question. It may deserve a thread all its own, but what is everyone's take on burgers, patty melts, any ground beef being cooked less than well done?

I have my own opinions, and have done my own research, but will save them for later.

Edited by JoshRountree, 11 February 2008 - 01:36 PM.


#18 Chris Hennes

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Posted 11 February 2008 - 02:36 PM

I may be opening Pandora's Box, and this might not be the right place to ask this question. It may deserve a thread all its own, but what is everyone's take on burgers, patty melts, any ground beef being cooked less than well done?

View Post

When I made my patty melt it was probably medium, which I would consider moderately overcooked. It was thinner than I make burgers, which I think was in line with Janet's instructions. Over on the "How to cook a burger" thread I don't see anyone advocating well done, nor over on the "THE BEST: Burger" thread. Grind it yourself, and don't stress out, IMHO.

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#19 ludja

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Posted 11 February 2008 - 03:52 PM

...
I thought, "I'll make a burger." I compiled a mental list of necessities: tomatoes, pickles, buns. I picked up a small package of ground chuck and started toward the bread section when it struck me. I could make a patty melt. I had everything in my kitchen already -- rye bread, onions, Gruyere. No other purchases necessary.

I could make a patty melt.
...

View Post

Almost the exact thing happened to me about a month ago.

I *love* patty melts but my whole life I have only ordered them in diners, etc. Then, a few weeks ago I was looking for something to make, thought about burgers and then realized I had rye bread and swiss cheese at home. It was indeed a euphoric moment when I realized.... I could make a patty melt...at home! They came out great; next time though I'll try some home ground beef.

(I'd definately use a light rye for a patty melt. I love dense, European rye bread, but I think American "light rye" toasts well and tastes better in a patty melt.)

Nice article! I want a patty melt today.

Edited by ludja, 11 February 2008 - 03:53 PM.

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

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#20 pogophiles

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Posted 11 February 2008 - 04:47 PM

Thanks JAZ! Your article took me right back to the campus grill in college, where a patty melt with fries was my standard order. The deep-voiced dude at the flattop (who we called 'ch'eatin' since that was all he ever said) did a really good version. I can taste it now...
Those who do not remember the pasta are doomed to reheat it.

#21 Dr. Funk

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Posted 13 February 2008 - 07:00 PM

Grind your own or know your butcher. If it's past pink it's not worth eating. I know the rancher and his son the butcher and I can walk out back into the processing area any time I want. That's what knowing your source is all about. Try to find a butcher who knows where his meat is coming from rather than boxed, vacuum-sealed primals and bulk ground beef which comes from GKW and GOK when it was packaged. I have a source I trust with truly rare tenderloins ( going to have them tomorrow for St.V day and our 10th) I feel sorry for all you right-siders. Hello from Wyoming
From Dixon, Wyoming

#22 Miss E

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Posted 25 February 2008 - 12:31 PM

Very nice, J-bird. But where is the yellow mustard? I seem to remember yellow mustard.

Dare I mention grilled , um I mean griddled cheese sandwiches with French's on the inside and honey spread on the outside?

I also think the grease from many other stray diner sandwiches adds a certain je ne sais quoi that one cannot obtain at home.
When the universe gives you what you want, ask for more.

#23 JAZ

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Posted 29 February 2008 - 05:56 PM

I also think the grease from many other stray diner sandwiches adds a certain je ne sais quoi that one cannot obtain at home.

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There is something to be said for ordering them out, rather than making them. I'm sure the grease (or griddle residue) could be part of the reason, but also there's the beauty of all the effort (by someone else) going on behind closed doors. So your patty melt appears like magic.

But where is the yellow mustard? I seem to remember yellow mustard.

I haven't used yellow mustard on a patty melt in at least 30 years (leave it to an older sister to expose past sins). Not that I have anything against yellow mustard in the right setting, but it's pretty overpowering in a patty melt.

#24 MissAmy

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Posted 03 March 2008 - 03:49 PM

Now I'm starving! I love a good patty melt, but is it a travesty that I like mine with American cheese? No other cheese gets as gooey and melty and all down in the crevasses of onion like American.
-Sounds awfully rich!
-It is! That's why I serve it with ice cream to cut the sweetness!

#25 babyluck

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Posted 04 March 2008 - 12:13 PM

Dare I mention grilled , um I mean griddled cheese sandwiches with French's on the inside and honey spread on the outside? 

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Honey on the outside??? Please to splain.

On the topic, I've never had a patty melt, nor known anyone to have one in my presence or otherwise and I have been haunting diners all my life. Maybe it is more common in the west? (I know it is available here in NY/NJ--a brief survey of local diners on menupages came up with about 50% having it on the menu and 50% not--I just don't know if anyone orders it.)

I need to have one now, though.
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#26 Jon Savage

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 08:18 PM

Now I'm starving! I love a good patty melt, but is it a travesty that I like mine with American cheese? No other cheese gets as gooey and melty and all down in the crevasses of onion like American.

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Not travesty (but) having tried all many cheeses Swiss is teh besto IMHO.

--edit: Especially tasty @ 2 in the morning 3 really (happy daylight savings time)

Edited by 6ppc, 09 March 2008 - 04:37 AM.

Jon

 

--formerly known as 6ppc--


#27 JAZ

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 08:11 PM

Now I'm starving! I love a good patty melt, but is it a travesty that I like mine with American cheese? No other cheese gets as gooey and melty and all down in the crevasses of onion like American.

View Post

While I'll agree about American's melting properties, I don't think it has enough flavor to stand up to the other ingredients. However, there are worse things.


Dare I mention grilled , um I mean griddled cheese sandwiches with French's on the inside and honey spread on the outside? 

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Honey on the outside??? Please to splain.

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Stay tuned for that story.

#28 Jon Savage

Jon Savage
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Posted 10 March 2008 - 09:15 PM

Stay tuned for that story.


Do tell. Pretty please.

Edited by 6ppc, 10 March 2008 - 09:16 PM.

Jon

 

--formerly known as 6ppc--


#29 IrishCream

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Posted 24 March 2008 - 07:36 PM

Great story, Jaz. But speaking of patty melts, which I love by the way, I can't resist adding this: Warning this has x-rated language
Lobster.

#30 JAZ

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Posted 10 May 2008 - 08:18 PM

Stay tuned for that story.


Do tell. Pretty please.

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Here's the story.