When I posted on my personal Facebook page about Tom+Chee, a grilled-cheese/tomato-soup chain, opening a Fort Worth location, one of my friends asked: “How do you base an entire restaurant around grilled cheese and soup? Food trends baffle me.”
At first, I thought he was being narrow-minded. But it’s a legitimate question: Most of us who know how to turn on a stove can put together a grilled-cheese sandwich, and it’s not that hard to do even a from-scratch tomato soup, much less heat up a can of Campbell’s.
Why go to a restaurant for that?
But Cincinnati-based Tom+Chee isn’t even the first grilled-cheese restaurant in these parts: Lee’s Grilled Cheese grew out of a food truck into a brick-and-mortar (just three miles away from Tom+Chee), the Gorgonzilla and Ruthie’s Rolling Cafe food trucks have been around for years, and a new brick-and-mortar, Grain & Dairy, is on the cusp of opening in Hurst.
DFW.com contributor Malcolm Mayhew even wrote an ode to grilled cheese in 2013.
It comes down to something someone once said about modern art: “Sure you could do it. But would you.”
Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward would. They started Tom+Chee in a food tent on a public square in Cincinnati, figuring they could feed and warm hungry ice skaters.
They took their concept to the ABC show Shark Tank, persuading “Shark” Barbara Corcoran to invest in franchise expansion. The chain is now in more than two dozen cities, including Richardson and now Fort Worth, with both DFW locations run by Greg Sippel and his wife, Wendy, a Texas Christian University grad.
Like any other “gourmet” grilled-cheese restaurant, Tom+Chee will stir debates about just what a grilled-cheese sandwich is. Purists will insist that a grilled cheese does not contain meat, but you’ll find few meat-free sandwiches on the fast-casual restaurant’s menu. They’re there, as are vegan options, but the majority of the sandwiches are meaty.
But then, purists probably would look askance at a place that offers “grilled cheese donuts,” which are one of the things that sets Tom+Chee apart.
The savory sandwiches are divided between “fancy” and “crunchy.” A meat-free Swiss+Shroom (grilled mushroom, onion, Swiss on pumpernickel rye, $4.99) was decent, although those flavors are enough on the subtle side that we wondered if we should have gotten the hummus-cucumber “Hippy+Chee” for our veggie option instead.
On the meat side, we tried the Flying Pig (roast turkey, bacon, pickle and smoked gouda on “hardy white” bread, $6.99). The white bread makes it easier to appreciate the buttery grilling, the bacon was crisp, the pickles bright. But the gouda, laid on with a light hand, got a little lost.
This place has the “comfort” part of comfort food down, though: The “crunchy” grilled cheeses get their crunch from potato or garlic chips among the toppings, reminding me of something I used to do with sandwiches when I was a kid.
The Italian (salt and vinegar chips, pepperoni, ham, mozzarella on hardy white, $6.49) was pleasantly spicy and gooey, with the chips adding texture and not clashing with the other toppings as much as you might think.
Speaking of gooey, the S’More grilled-cheese doughnut ($4.99) — chocolate pieces, graham crackers, melted marshmallows and mascarpone between two inverted glazed-doughnut halves — was a mess, but as messes go, it was one of the best: Not cloyingly sweet, about as evocative of campfire s’mores as any s’more-inspired dessert gets, with some extra doughy goodness from the doughnut. Tip: Use the fork that accompanies it. Or grab multiple napkins.
Most of the grilled-cheese doughnuts are along this line: More dessert than entree, with sweet-friendly cheeses such as mascarpone and brie, although there is the Classic, with cheddar cheese, and the Bananarama, caramelized banana with smoked gouda. Build-your-own options are available on all the breads, including glazed doughnut, which could make for some really wacky variations.
The “Tom” part of Tom+Chee was more standard: the smooth classic tomato and the chunky tomato basil were both pretty basic, pleasant accompaniments (and dipping sauces) to the sandwiches, but nothing more (soups are $5 for a bowl, $3 a cup and $1 for a “dipper”). Better was the “mac&chee” ($3/$4.50), creamy macaroni and cheese that provided more comfort-food memories.
The “comfort” part applies more to the food than the restaurant, which has pretty minimalist decor even for a fast-casual spot; the staff, however, was friendly and engaging on all of our visits.
That’s how you base a restaurant around grilled cheese and soup: Appeal to nostalgia (not to mention to busy work lives that leave people too tired or overwhelmed to cook), put an inventive spin on a traditional food, have a welcoming staff.
Sometimes at this place, you almost want it to be cold and rainy outside, just to allow the comfort food to give you even more comfort.
- 8901 Tehama Ridge Parkway, Fort Worth
- Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday