If there’s a better month than February for comfort food, I don’t know it. I’ve been craving my favorite — a hearty grilled cheese sandwich — all month.
Actually, my mind has been on grilled cheese since January, when I stopped into the Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton and ordered the grilled cheese on their menu. It had apples in it, and was so crunchy and sweet and rich I was willing to drive an hour in bad weather to taste it again.
Alas, it was one of the brewery’s monthly “whims,” specials that come and go as the manager and chef try new dishes and flavors. It wasn’t offered this month but may reappear, perhaps in a different form, in the future.
I know I’m not alone in my love for grilled cheese sandwiches: There’s a food vendor at Grizzly basketball games who specializes in grilled cheeses, and Missoula had an after-hours pop-up restaurant in times past that featured this classic fare.
Sure, making grilled cheese at home isn’t hard. But I like to taste the combinations that others come up with. So I sampled three in Missoula, all of which cost $10 or under, and all of which warmed my soul during the longest short month of the year:
The sandwich: “Grown Up Grilled Cheese”
Where: Conflux Brewing Company, 200 E. Main St., downtown Missoula
Well named, this GC. Kids might reject this version because it has (delicious) green stuff in it: pesto, which gives it that grown-up lift and makes it memorable.
The bread is sourdough, grilled golden. The cheeses are smoked Gouda and white cheddar. This sandwich — “sando” in the Conflux lexicon — is made with grilled onions and roasted tomatoes too. Nice grown-up touches. For a side, I chose one of several salads, hoping to feel less guilty after eating so much cheese, but fries, tots, soup, macaroni salad, mac and cheese and grits are offered, too.
For a drink, I had the 8-ounce (it was lunch, too early for the 16-ouncer) Funk’n Farmhouse Saison, a 7.1 percent alcohol beer that Conflux describes as “crisp and fruity” with “notes of black pepper spice.” Accurately put.
I asked our waitperson which beer he’d recommend with grilled cheese. “I think it’s pretty universal,” he said. “They’d all be good.”
The sandwich: “Original Grilled Cheese”
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Where: Liquid Planet Grille, 1025 Arthur St., near the University of Montana
A sexier name might be warranted, but this sandwich hit the spot on a blustery day. It uses cheddar jack, mozzarella and American cheeses — all three perfect for melting and flavor-melding — and adds a fourth that makes this version special: cream cheese with sun-dried tomatoes.
The sandwich is grilled, wonderfully, using Wheat Montana sourdough bread, and comes with house-made chips.
The LP Grille makes a house tomato soup every day, so you can always order the classic comfort combo of tomato soup and grilled cheese. (A cup of soup is $2.50 extra; half or whole sandwiches are available). Their soup has a bite to it, probably from the pepper in the recipe, according to one of the behind-the-counter staffers who happily answered questions on the day I stopped in. For me, the peppery tomato soup really brought out the flavors of the cheeses.
The Original Grilled Cheese is just one of several grilled sandwiches on the LP Grille menu. According to Liquid Planet’s website, the “Dude Abides” is the most popular Montana Melt, made with roasted turkey, bacon, avocado, ranch and Monterey jack. Sounds delicious, but technically not a “grilled cheese” in my judgment.
Liquid Planet has locations across Missoula but food offerings at each are different.
The sandwich: “Ultimate Grilled Cheese”
Where: Iron Horse Bar and Grill, 501 N. Higgins Ave., downtown Missoula
Count ’em: This version of a grilled cheese uses four cheeses — cheddar, provolone, Swiss and hot pepper — to make a silky, melty classic. The bread is thick-cut white, meaty enough to grill and soft enough to let the cheese merge. The addition of the hot pepper cheese is a different touch, subtle but giving a boost of flavor.
Not a fan of white bread? Ask for something different: The staff is happy to list the options. Rye? Whole wheat? They’d give the sandwich a twist.
I paired my sandwich with a cup of the Iron Horse’s always-delicious Southwestern Black Bean soup, available every day and a favorite at the eatery. The soup has a bite to it — pleasantly spicy, zesty — that goes great with grilled cheese.
A half-sandwich and cup of soup was just $5, an amazing deal. The full version is $9. Sides include any of several soups or salad, coleslaw or fries.
Add ham to your grilled cheese for $2, but in my world, that makes ham the star instead of the cheese. I’ll let you decide for yourself.