Tom and Chee, Cincinnati/Newport, Ky.
Anything Cleveland can do, Cincinnati can do too. I’m not sure what it is about Ohio and grilled cheese, but when it comes to these sandwiches, apparently war were declared between the Forest City (Cleveland) and the Queen City (Cincinnati) with the presence of Tom and Chee, the Cincinnati version of Cleveland’s Melt Bar and Grilled. It’s no surprise for these two to battle each other, given that Cleveland and Cincinnati have been rivals in baseball since about 1901 and in football since 1970. But grilled cheese as the battlefield, I do not get. However, I’m certainly not going to complain, because these places are that awesome.
As its name implies, Tom and Chee focuses on tomato soup and grilled cheese, using the standard lingo from back in the day as its name. Its main location is actually across the Ohio River from Cincinnati on the levee of Newport in Kentucky (which Amy would say is the good side of the Ohio River. What can I say, she loves her Wildcats), leaving a visitor with a nice view of Cincinnati from the other side of the river. Where Tom and Chee diverges from Melt is it places equal emphasis on its soup, whereas Melt focuses all of its attention on its grilled cheese. Melt does serve a tomato soup, but it’s unquestionably a secondary thing that isn’t pushed nearly as much as its fries and slaw.
Not so at Tom and Chee, which doesn’t even offer fries or slaw as side dishes. In fact, the only side dish that even shows up on the menu at Tom and Chee besides tomato soup is salads. That means that you had better like at least one of either tomato soup or grilled cheese if you plan on a visit, because otherwise, you’re going to be sadly disappointed.
Disappointment, however, is hard to come by here. The principle of fewer being better again holds here, because Tom and Chee knows how to do its small menu well. When it comes to soup, Tom and Chee serve it three ways: the classic red soup many of us are very familiar with, a chunkier version with the tomatoes not completely crushed, or a creamy bisque-like soup.
Being the way I am, I opted for the cream soup and was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the marinara version at Melt, this was about perfect. The tomato taste was tempered by the creaminess, making for a much more palatable taste that worked equally well by itself or on my sandwich. This is another difference about Tom and Chee: they’ll sell a tiny amount of soup for dipping on the side. I’d recommend just getting the cup of soup if you want to dip it, but that’s because of the high quality of the soup. It should be eaten on its own at least somewhat. I’m not even the biggest fan of tomato soup and loved this version.
Now we get to my sandwich, but first we’ve got to address some of the sandwiches I didn’t order, the truly unique stuff on this menu. I speak, of course, of the grilled cheese doughnut. Yes, that is exactly what it sounds like. The most basic of this involves simply splitting a doughnut in half, putting the cut sides on the grill and melting some cheddar between the halves. Of course, cheddar doesn’t have to be the choice. Any cheese on Tom and Chee’s menu can go on a doughnut. It’s different, that’s for sure, but it appears to be really popular.
Of course, not everyone is going to be psyched about a cheese doughnut, so Tom and Chee came up with some other creative ideas to take the concept further. Should you care to step further, the creations of Tom and Chee start to look more like something that would come out of Voodoo Doughnut, while the cheeses move up to the sweeter mascarpone, an intensely rich Italian cream cheese used in desserts. As you might guess, this has the potential to shine with the sweet ingredients. Some of the doughnuts include The King, with banana, peanut butter, mozzarella and mascarpone on the doughnut, and the Mint Summer’s Night, which adds chocolate mint flavoring to the mascarpone and pairs it with strawberries and mozzarella. It’s just…psychedelic.
As you might expect, though, the real key is its creative savory gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. Tom and Chee’s board changes daily, and new specials will show up that are not on the website’s menu. In addition, there are several gourmet sandwiches that are mainstays. Most of the names tend to not be very creative (this isn’t Ike’s), instead opting to just spell out the ingredients. For example, the Pesto and Turkey, the BLT and Chee and the Bacon and Blue are examples that you should find every visit. One of the few creative names is pure Cincinnati: the Armagoetta. It’s made with goetta, a Cincinnati meat that’s ground and has oats added to it. Cherry peppers and pepperjack, among other things, join goetta on sourdough.
However, when a thing like the Swiss and Shroom is offered, well, I have an easy decision. With caramelized onions on rye, this was just an incredible sandwich. Tom and Chee sautees the mushrooms to perfection and opts for a dark rye bread, which toasts perfectly. Of course, the only real choice to pair it with cheese-wise is Swiss, and it works wonderfully. I’m not sure why the slightly nutty taste of Swiss is so perfect with mushrooms, but you can put Swiss and mushrooms together on almost anything and it will taste great.
Put it on a grilled cheese sandwich, however, and you have heaven between two slices of bread. The only way to improve the sandwich at all would be to dip it in some tomato sauce. That’s what I ended up doing with a large chunk of the sandwich, allowing the creamy bisque to add a surprising new element of flavor. It complements the existing flavors the way a good addition should, and the sandwich is fantastic with or without it. You really can’t go wrong here.
I’m not sure if there’s a winner in the war of the grilled cheese. I know for a fact there is no loser, as these two places are both outstanding. I also know that I’ve got a lot of different grilled cheeses to try the next time I make it out to Cincinnati and Kentucky, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back soon (hey, I have to make sure Amy gets to experience it). I’m not sure why grilled cheese is so huge in Ohio and Kentucky rather than Wisconsin, but it’s certainly worked out well for them. In the Buckeye and Bluegrass States, they’ve got everyone’s favorite comfort sandwich nailed.
Time to go: Lunch/dinner. A bonus of going at lunch is that you get free parking, because of Newport’s “Lunch on the Levee” program, which I think is aimed at Cincinnati’s workers just across the river.
Wait during my visit: On the long side, but the line moves quick. This place is pretty popular.
Location: Tom and Chee is at 1 Levee Way in Newport, Ky., near the aquarium.
Parking: The levee has plenty of it, but if you’re not here during lunch, you’ll pay a couple dollars for the privilege.
Cost: Not bad. Most sandwiches run $5, with soup about $3. You can get out for $10 a person easily.
Seating arrangement: Tables, chairs and outdoor seating.
Website: Tom and Chee
Specialty items: Grilled cheese, grilled cheese dougnuts