Boston Local Food Festival

Presented by Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts

Grilled Cheese Nation proves food truck concept a win for Boston

The great thing about a grilled cheese sandwich is that it’s comforting any time of year. And you know what’s really good with grilled cheese? Tomato soup. And since it’s summer, why not make that a fresh gazpacho to go with that crispy, buttery grilled cheese? The tomato soup is available every day with your grilled cheese from Grilled Cheese Nation, the food trucks you can spot from a block away. In the cold months of Boston, it’s hot tomato soup, but right now, while it’s still summer, they make a fresh, chilled gazpacho instead. Grilled Cheese Nation doesn’t make anything else: just grilled cheese and tomato soup. They are what is called a “concept truck,” a food truck that elevates the generic food coach stocked with uninspiring, cheap fare into a traveling act of culinary art.

Grilled Cheese Nation isn’t the only concept food truck in town, but co-founders Todd Saunders and Ron Sarni helped pave the way for food trucks into Boston. The duo became interested in the vibrant food truck culture that thrives in cities on the West Coast, and eventually packed up to take a tour of food trucks in cities across the country. Between them, they’ve learned the joys and pitfalls of food truck culture. While LA has the largest food culture of the cities Saunders and Sarni visited on their tour, San Francisco and Portland have food trucks of notably high quality. In these cities, the “concept truck” pioneered in LA thrived in food cultures that support higher quality, artisanal fare. Here, Saunders and Sarni found the concept they wanted to bring to Boston.

While still affordable, like the food people buy from street vendors in cities everywhere, Grilled Cheese Nation sandwiches are a class act. In fact, one of their freshly grilled sandwiches, made from local bread, butter, and cheeses, may be the best you have ever eaten. Being dedicated to only one kind of food means the freedom to obsess over every detail until your offering is perfect: the Platonic ideal of a grilled cheese sandwich.

I met a friend for lunch at Grilled Cheese Nation on a recent weekday, where the easily spotted food truck was parked along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, right near the New England Aquarium. When I ordered the Boston Common, the classic with Cheddar, with additional tomatoes and bacon, the grill cook on duty, Gavin, told me I’d ordered the most popular sandwich from Grilled Cheese Nation. It’s easy to see why it’s a favorite. Todd Saunders searched for bread he knew would create the best grilled cheese. Locally produced Iggy’s pain de mie bread has an excellent crumb, absorbing just the right amount of butter to be chewy and crispy.

After their West Coast tour of food trucks from LA to Portland, Saunders and Sarni brought their ideas about bringing food trucks to Boston, talking to Mike Ross, then President of the City Council, as well as to the Mayor’s office and the city’s first ever food policy director, “food czar,” Edith Murnane. They were able to convince the mayor and others that, by studying cities with established food truck cultures, the city could grow its revenue, serve the city better, and avoid the pitfalls seen in other cities. Through tight regulation of vendors, only one truck is permitted in a designated spot at any time, and GPS units on the trucks ensure compliance. A map on the City website shows visitors where food trucks can be found, by the day of the week, time of day, location, or vendor, so if, for example, you want to follow Grilled Cheese Nation around town or just want to know where they are today for lunch, you can.  An umbrella organization, the Boston Area Food Truck Association, headed by Sarni, serves food truck vendors by leasing concept trucks to entrepreneurs, providing the infrastructure necessary for a food truck operation, and “speaking with one voice” in the political arena of Boston.

On my Boston visit to the Grilled Cheese Nation food truck, I realized I’d built up a lot of anticipation for the sandwich I was about to bite into. I’d already traveled for hours to eat it, and I consider myself a fair hand at the art of the grilled cheese sandwich. Would it measure up to the hype? I’m glad to say that my Boston Common was worth the trip from Northampton. The pain de mie has a delightful, sour tang, and an excellent, highly consistent crumb, ensuring no holes for cheese to dribble through. My friend gave me a bite of hers, the Brie Me Up with brie and pear, made wheat pain de mie, and it was a wholly alternate interpretation of the classic grilled cheese. Mild, almost nutty, and sweet, it was still authentically grilled cheese, yet entirely unlike my tangy, salty sandwich, sprinkled with generous amounts of hickory-smoked, chopped bacon and Backyard Farms tomatoes from Maine.

Last year’s Boston Local Food Festival was the Grilled Cheese Nation food truck’s first festival in Boston. Operating at private events since last August, they’ve been working the streets of Boston every day this summer, as well as making appearances at local festivals. At this year’s Festival on October 1, make room for one of these crisp, unctuous treats. Given what’s gone into it, Grilled Cheese Nation may make the best grilled cheese sandwich in America.

This post was written by featured blogger Justin Cascio.  Check out his blog Justin Wants to Feed You and follow him on Twitter @LikeTheWatch.
Posted by: Nicola on September 12, 2011 @ 11:00 am
Filed under: Blog