What I Ate at the Twin Cities Grilled Cheese Festival

And who won this inaugural showcase of chef-crafted grilled cheese sandwiches?
The Whiskey Bacon & Brussel Sprout sandwich

Photo by Erik Tormoen

One sandwich I did not snap a picture of at the inaugural Twin Cities Grilled Cheese Festival this past weekend was called the “#ClassicAF.” Because it served simply to remind attendees of the foundation on which the other 18 sandwiches built their arguments. That is: buttered toast, a Kraft single. (Plus, in this case, a Dixie cup of chunky tomato soup.)

So, how was this expo of chef-designed grilled cheese quarter-cuts? From an eating standpoint, was it too much cheese? If anything, it was too much buttered bread. And from a culinary standpoint? Honestly, could’ve been more cheeses.

Driving the whole thing was a competition: to determine which (anonymous) local chef’s sandwich was the best, based on a put-your-card-in-a-cup voting system. A good crowd showed out in the Commons park of downtown Minneapolis, on a day not too brisk to toss the orange frisbees that were also plates. “Were you in it for the free grilled cheese or the free alcohol?” one bearded guy semi-rhetorically asked me. Don’t get it twisted: tickets were $60. VIP access (which granted a cordoned-off area to sit and eat far, far away from the proletariat) went up to $109 on Eventbrite.

Makes sense. There was an open bar. And so many people milling about with so many hard seltzers. Nothing unusual there—although local craft beers might want in at some point. As for the sandwiches? Much of what I ate wasn’t too far-fetched, either. Definitely no edible gold leaf. But also, by the time I got there for the festival’s second session, at 4:30 p.m., many ingredient lists—among those that weren’t discreetly out of the way—had some cheeses crossed out: fontina, Manchego, a four-cheese Mexican blend. Maybe that’s why a few sandwich makers didn’t seem entirely forthcoming.

But this was the first year; kinks are understandable. The issue might’ve even played to the palates of those who like grilled cheese most. “The one at the beginning was the best!” said one attendee. She was talking about the #ClassicAF, and she was #SeriousAF.

In the end, the winner thankfully did not play it safe: Voters went for an unforgettable pile of greens, cheese, booze, and meat. Scroll to the bottom to see who it was.

The Viking

Photo by Erik Tormoen

The Viking

Blueberry jam replaced the probably-purpler “plum jam” on the ingredients list—scrapped along with fontina—so I’m guessing this creation could’ve looked more spirited. But shred Parmesan on an organic glob of wild blueberries, and you’ve got something deliciously simple.

The Italian

Photo by Erik Tormoen

The Italian

It’s easy to notch things up with meat, and the Italian—ricotta, balsamic dressing, salami—went down like a heavy lunch.

Nacho Mama’s Grilled Cheese

Photo by Erik Tormoen

Nacho Mama’s Grilled Cheese

Diced jalapeños, Monterey Jack, chili powder, sour cream—with a healthy drip of nacho cheese on French bread. This concept needed to happen, although I heard jokes about pump-it-out AMC slime.

Ragin’ Cajun

Photo by Erik Tormoen

Ragin’ Cajun

Its primness deceives: shredded Monterey, shredded cheddar, andouille sausage, Cajun seasoning, and Dijon mustard pack an Italian-wheat suitcase with a sharp, zippy, dense amount of springiness.

Get Him to the Greek

Photo by Erik Tormoen

Get Him to the Greek

Feta, goat cheese, and an olive tapenade made this a love-it-or-hate-it. I heard it described as “too intense” and “sooo good.” After a couple bites, the former became the latter, and then back to the former.

Cheesus Crust

Photo by Erik Tormoen

Cheesus Crust

A lovely pun I still don’t get: Monterey, cheddar, basil, ground mustard.

The Grilled Chee-za

Photo by Erik Tormoen

The Grilled Chee-za

Pretty much, more or less, this was pizza, by my Midwestern Hot Pocket standards—with pepperoni, pepper, tomato sauce, Parm.

The Sweet Heart

Photo by Erik Tormoen

The Sweet Heart

This didn’t detour from so much as ramp up the salty-savoriness, with cheddar under that bacon-apple shuffle.

The Oktoberfest

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The Oktoberfest

Bratwurst, a slice of provolone, Swiss, sauerkraut, mustard, paprika—intended to go with pretzel bread, which would have put it over the top.

The Cowboy

Photo by Erik Tormoen

The Cowboy

I like a cheese that kicks, so this became my personal favorite: provolone, shredded cheddar, chili powder, onion powder, and a mayo-and-sriracha slick.

Gimme Gimme S’more

Photo by Erik Tormoen

Gimme Gimme S’more

This one existed to round out the experience with sugar and a Britney Spears invocation. Marshmallows, Hershey’s chocolate, cinnamon. You get it. And, listen—it was great.

The Bravacado

Photo by Erik Tormoen

The Bravacado

The word of the day was “fat,” and the Bravacado tripled the deal. Lime juice and garlic powder cut through the bacon, the avocado spread, the Havarti.

Don’t Go Bacon My Heart

Photo by Erik Tormoen

Don’t Go Bacon My Heart

Bacon was less involved at this fest than I thought it’d be (he says, aware that four sandwiches on this list have bacon on them)—which is a good thing. But it wouldn’t have felt complete without a straightforward combo: smoked gouda, American cheese, bacon.

The Gobbler

Photo by Erik Tormoen

The Gobbler

Here’s the acidity that made for the fest’s most puckering bite. Cranberry sauce, brie—and, by the time I got there, no turkey or French’s fried onion rings, which would have padded that tart sting a bit.

Whiskey Bacon & Brussel Sprout

Photo by Erik Tormoen

THE WINNER: Whiskey Bacon & Brussels Sprouts

Havarti, Brussels sprouts, and bacon-maple-bourbon jam made this one funky, undeniable, and the most unique offering here—a memorable bite that lingered with the power of those wilty-charred sprouts. O’Cheeze took home a literal trophy, and here’s a secret from owner Tony Fritz: “It was all made from scratch and made on-site. So, as we cooked the bacon, we used that as the fat needed to cook the Brussels sprouts, and also added some into the base of the jam.” In other words: Tell your #ClassicAF to GTFO.

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