The comfort of bread and cheese

It's a gutsy move to open any kind of food-service operation, but especially in this economy.

The same could be said of launching a grilled-cheese kiosk amid perhaps the fastest-growing dietary trends of gluten-free and dairy-free. But for every staunch or aspiring gluten-free, raw vegan out there, count dozens — maybe hundreds — of us who still need our bread-and-cheese fix.

The Grilled Cheese Company is catering to that craving from a former drive-through coffee stand off Biddle Road. It had been doing business in the parking lot of John's Auto Care Center for about a month when I visited for a weekday lunch. I wondered whether the obscure location was a misstep, but The Grilled Cheese Company didn't lack for business, as co-owners Ray Ferro and Don Fox prepared several orders ahead of mine.

The menu concept is as straightforward as, well, grilled cheese. Every sandwich starts with two slices of cheddar on sourdough for $4. Except in this case, the cheese is Tillamook, the bread from SunStone Artisan or Apple Cellar bakeries in Ashland. The eatery advertises itself as "artisan ... using only local ingredients."

Among them is Applegate's Pennington Farms apple butter, constituting on the basic grilled cheese the least expensive specialty sandwich at $4.50. For that price, there's also the "tomato kicker" with pico de gallo.

Customers can pay up to $7 for a roast-beef grilled cheese, either with bacon, grilled onions and barbecue sauce or with grilled onions and mushrooms and horseradish. There also are two types of cheese and fried-egg sandwiches listed ($5.75 with bacon or $6 with ham).

There is nearly no end to possible combinations, though, under the build-your-own sandwich option. Ingredients for enlivening the standard grilled cheese start at 25 cents for sauces and range to $1.50 for roast beef. Most vegetable fillings cost 50 cents. Grilled onions or mushrooms or adding a fried egg costs 75 cents. That price particularly seems fair for an egg, given that The Grilled Cheese Company uses organic, free-range ones.

A fan of sweet-savory combinations, I ordered the apple-butter grilled cheese. I also tacked on a bottle of Crater Lake natural root beer for $1.50. Other beverage choices are Crater Lake lemon-lime and orange-cream sodas and bottled water. Kettle brand chips in several flavors also cost $1.50.

Expecting to scarf my sandwich in the car, I was glad to see a concrete picnic table and benches just beyond the white-and-blue kiosk topped with an orange awning — even if my view was either the airport tower or John's garage bays. In early fall's fine weather, The Grilled Cheese Company cooks outside on portable grills but, when the weather turns cool, will move inside.

Asked my preference of packaging, paper tray or paper sack, I chose the latter, appreciating the opportunity to generate a little less garbage from a mobile meal. In the same vein, The Grilled Cheese Company had not printed to-go menus but offered to send a "paperless" copy via email. The owners could skip that step for a lot of prospective patrons simply by posting it to their Facebook page.

The sack was an adequate wrapper for my sandwich, which oozed just a bit of the generous smear of apple butter from the sides. Spicier than expected, the preserve nicely complemented the cheese and only would have been better with sharper cheddar, maybe a multigrain bread.

Some people may want their sandwich grilled a bit more. The bread's color was just a light gold, the texture still pleasingly crunchy.

The following week's sandwich — fried egg, ham and cheese — had more color, although I wasn't asked my choice of serviceware. The meat, Ferro said, was purchased from The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point. Eggs had been sourced from vendors at Medford's Saturday farmers market, Ferro added, explaining that he was switching to Rogue Valley Brambles eggs because his family has a herdshare in the Talent farm.

Ferro's family, not surprisingly, was the first audience for his sandwiches. After the former private chef started posting photos to Facebook, friends said he should open a food cart. He started grilling at special events in June with help from Fox and some backing from a Eugene investor. Perhaps the additional support allows Ferro and Fox to donate 10 percent of their receipts monthly to a nonprofit of their choice.

The Grilled Cheese Company will expand hours for winter into early evening and its menu to include soup, namely tomato-basil bisque, along with some daily specials.

Another source of doughy, cheesy, guilty pleasure I can tap a lot more often is Rogue Valley Pretzelmaker, which moved to a downtown location in May.

I'd always been hard-pressed to resist soft pretzels dipped in liquid cheese while shopping near Rogue Valley Mall's food court. The new location gives college students, families patronizing the library and downtown workers plenty of chances to grab this simple snack.

Pretzelmaker's version is not nearly as leathery as the typical soft pretzel and, I've always thought, strangely sweet. Ordering it with spicy nacho cheese rather than cheddar offsets some of the sweetness. If Pretzelmaker became more of a habit, the cinnamon-spiced pretzel sounds pleasing with cream cheese for dipping.

Pretzels start at $2.79 for plain; flavored cost $2.99. Pretzel "bites" run from $3.59 for small to $5.59 for large. Seasoning them with cinnamon, Parmesan, garlic, sun-dried tomato-basil, chipotle barbecue or ranch costs 30 cents per flavor. Sauces, which also include "pizza," vanilla and caramel, cost 69 cents apiece.

Pretzelmaker offers a few combinations served with fountain sodas from $4.59 to $5.99. Featured among these are its hot dogs wrapped in pretzel dough and "mini dogs." A wide variety of beverages — bottled juices and energy drinks, blended smoothies and even hot teas, hot chocolate and coffee — are available.

The establishment comes off as more than another fast-food chain, however, with friendly, helpful staff offering free samples and checking if patrons are entitled to student discounts. Toys and games for kids, plus a chess set and Jenga for the college crowd encourage hanging out, along with free wireless Internet.

— Sarah Lemon

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