To our credit or to our chagrin, San Diego has been the breeding ground for at least a couple of successful fast food chains: most notably Jack in the Box and Rubio’s Coastal Grill. Not by coincidence, it’s one of these two chains I tend to visit when the fast food itch arises: i.e., when I’m desperate and there’s no In-N-Out in sight.
5618 Mission Center Road #1002, Mission Valley
3545 Del Mar Heights Road, C6, Carmel Valley
But lately, another has caught my eye when I find myself in suburban shopping center country with little time to spare. What started out as a food truck has become the small but growing Grater Grilled Cheese chain, pledging to offer a “chef-inspired twist” on the “great American grilled cheese sandwich.” Grater has five locations and counting, including two that have crossed the border into Orange County.
Locally, an Eastlake shop is incoming, and the La Jolla spot is temporarily closed for remodeling. But my visits to storefronts in Del Mar (3545 Del Mar Heights Rd. C6) and Mission Valley (5618 Mission Center Rd.) have followed the first rule of operating a fast food chain: consistency.
The menu starts with the Basic 5 grilled cheese, made on sourdough bread with a “secret” blend of cheeses that, I’m told, combine provolone, Swiss, muenster, Colby, and Monterey Jack.
Watching staff at these shops making these sandwiches makes it clear that the people behind Grater have boiled the art of the grilled cheese down to a science. Uniform slices of half-inch thick sourdough sit on a flat top, cooking on the same heat for the same amount of time, yielding consistently golden-brown crusts with consistently warm and gooey cheese centers.
They get close to perfect, every time. I say close because the best grilled cheeses, in my opinion, are cooked with butter, olive oil, or a combination of the two. Grater goes with margarine, which I’m sure helps with the consistent cooking, and results in toast that’s crisp without being greasy. Really, the only tradeoff is flavor.
Despite the earthiness of Swiss, the otherwise mild cheese blend emphasizes an ideal melt. Perhaps to make up for this, perhaps to justify the $6.90 price tag, each sandwich may be grilled with a complimentary spread, whether pesto or roasted garlic aioli, or deli mustard.
I opted for pale ale chipotle aioli on my basic, and did relish the residual hoppy notes and light spice. Grilled cheese purists can order a sandwich sans spread, but for better or worse the extra flavor makes it more memorable.
But grater’s not trying to fashion a fast food empire on the back of a basic grilled cheese. The bulk of the menu takes it up a significant notch, building on the five cheese blend to craft a series of cheese melts ranging from Philly cheese steak to lobster. It might be better to build your own sandwich to personal taste, choosing from a list of buck or two add-ons that include the obvious (avocado, bacon, and smoked turkey), less obvious (fried chicken tenders, mac’n’cheese), and additional cheeses (goat and gorgonzola).
You may opt for whole wheat bread instead of sourdough. I wish I’d done so with a grilled peanut butter and jelly. Turns out, sourdough and peanut butter clash.
Time will tell whether this becomes San Diego’s next successful restaurant chain, but for fast food it’s pretty good. And it’s got to be better for kids than a Happy Meal.