The mac 'n' cheese grilled cheese and tomato soup at The Big Cheese (Hilary Higgins/RedEye )
The Big Cheese
4229 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-661-6993
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start
I have a rule when I dine out to not order items I could easily make at home. With this mantra in mind, I was skeptical that a grilled cheese spot could offer enough variety to keep me coming back. But when The Big Cheese opened just down the street from where I live in a storefront I'd watched turnover time and time again, I had to give it a shot to support the neighborhood.
The scene: In the middle of family-friendly North Center, I wasn't shocked to find a bunch of kiddos noshing on sandwiches on a Saturday around lunchtime. While the decor leans kid-friendly with walls the color of Kraft Singles, muscle car posters and retro-looking superhero art, it's not like dining in a day care. Couples and groups of 20-somethings will fit in just fine, and two TVs will appease sports fans looking to get a quick bite mid-game.
The food: I'm a purist when it comes to grilled cheese, so I took advantage of the combo offered on a chalkboard hanging from the wall: A $6.95 classic grilled cheese and a cup of tomato soup billed as being "for the 99 percenters." Buttery, thick-cut Texas toast comes stuffed with gooey cheddar and American cheeses, crispy bacon and a thin slice of tomato. It's basic but entirely satisfying. The creamy tomato soup was a tad bland and somewhat forgettable, making the heaping portion of fries dusted with parmesan the better side choice. Beyond the classic, there are a half-dozen other options, all of which (of course) include melted cheese, but also ingredients such as grilled chicken, Polish sausage and shiitake mushrooms with truffle oil. My spicy food-loving companion opted for The Red Devil with roasted jalapenos, chihuahua cheese, cilantro and chorizo. Roasting the jalapenos takes out much of the bite but leaves a nice flavor, and the bread soaks up all the greasy goodness of the sausage. I kept reaching across the table to steal another bite, so maybe I'm not such a purist after all? Still, I think I'll steer clear of the novelty sandwiches, including a mac 'n' cheese grilled cheese (exactly what it sounds like) and grilled chili-cheese sandwich, which were on special the day I visited.
The drinks: Julius Meinl coffee will pair perfectly with breakfast sandwiches joining the menu soon, but for now, a soda is the way to go.
The service: On several occasions, the friendly but frenzied staff apologized unnecessarily. While dropping off our food, a server said, "Sorry and thanks for your patience," when it had taken less than 10 minutes to arrive. Chalk it up to new-restaurant nerves.
Bottom line: With its location down the block from Half Acre's hopping new bring-your-own-food taproom, I suspect The Big Cheese will see a boom in carryout business. It's the perfect food for soaking up suds and the price point (sandwiches start at $5) will make locals and beer-loving outsiders happy.
It's grilled cheese time!
Chicago has seen a number of grilled cheese-centric restaurants come and go. Here's a quick review.
March 2009: The 44th Ward Dinner Party opens in Lakeview.
June 2010: The 44th Ward Dinner Party closes.
May 2011: Cheesie's Pub & Grub opens in Lakeview.
October 2011: Melt Sandwich Shoppe opens in Bucktown.
October 2012: Melt Sandwich Shoppe closes. The Big Cheese opens in North Center.
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