When Lent arrives, many Catholic observers turn to their favorite Friday fish fry to avoid eating red meat. But not everyone loves fish or wants a beer-batter induced snooze immediately after.
Take Amherst native Missy Stolfi, who is excited that one of her favorite meals falls snugly in line with the Lenten rules.
"I love grilled cheese because it combines my two favorite foods – bread and cheese – and because it is so familiar and satisfying and simple," said Stolfi, for whom grilled cheese isn't just a seasonal taste. "I think for many people who keep Lent, it is a throwback, a comfort food, which aligns well with Lent as a tradition."
During this six-week season, local businesses are keen to satisfy customers' desires; not only household names such as the Grange in Hamburg or the Black Sheep on Buffalo's West Side, but also smaller shops that specialize in meatless foods, like the Cheesy Chick in Williamsville and Buffalo Melting Point, at 244 Allen St.
At the Grange, chef-owner Brad Rowell calls grilled cheese "as approachable as it gets." His grilled cheese with roasted garlic tomato soup is his best-selling item and there's not a letup during Lent.
Melting Point owner-operator Matt Yuhnke has noticed a change during Lent as well.
"We definitely get a bump in business around this time, especially during lunch on Fridays," Yuhnke said. "We're a nice alternative to what's traditionally thought of during this season. We can do the classic comfort food, cheesy-and-spicy options as well as fresher stuff that's not too heavy."
Yuhnke started the tiny grilled cheese shop by himself in 2014, and has grown his menu, space, staff and clientele considerably in the last six years. There's ample meat among his offerings – carnivores dig the grilled-cheese burger – but his slew of outside-the-box vegetarian options are much appreciated during Lent.
Melting Point's specialty grilled cheeses don't lean vegetarian as a seasonal scheme; it's at the root of the business. Yuhnke loves vegetables and the process of crafting vegetarian items from scratch, exemplified by his No. 25 grilled cheese, which stars pickled beets and baby arugula, as well as locally sourced chevre from First Light Farm & Creamery, between pumpernickel bread.
Here are several spots to try a grilled cheese – from the classic, to twists on traditional and sandwich-and-soup pairings.
Classic grilled cheese ($1.99) at Buffalo Melting Point, 244 Allen St.
At just $1.99, Melting Point has one of the city's cheapest plain grilled cheese sandwiches. There's a bulk deal on the simple American cheese-on-white approach, with six classics for $9.99. Build-your-own grilled cheese for $6 and up. Specialty grilled cheeses up to $9.99.
Yuhnke sometimes has to explain his prices for a classic food considered "simple," but once customers understand he makes almost everything from scratch – down to the ketchup, mustard, jam, biscuits and veggie chorizo – they grasp the mission.
"People really get into it," he said.
Grilled cheese with roasted garlic tomato soup ($10.50) at The Grange Community Kitchen, 22 Main St., Hamburg.
For the grilled cheese assembly, pullman loaf bread hugs both aged cheddar and Gruyère as the two cheeses. For the roasted garlic tomato soup, Rowell invests in Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, what he believes to be the best canned tomatoes available, and isn't bashful with the garlic.
"It's a classic, but with the best sourced ingredients," Rowell said.
An array of grilled cheeses ($7.95-$8.95) from Griddle & Greens, 295 Main St.
Andrew Balash has quietly run this breakfast-and-lunch shop inside the Ellicott Square Building for the last year, and his range of grilled cheeses earns Griddle & Greens a mention. His customers inquired about Lenten options before the season, so Balash was prepared for a Friday bump.
The Frisco Dipper pairs sourdough bread and provolone cheese; Nice to Wheat You joins whole wheat and muenster; Rye Oh Rye deploys seeded rye and Swiss; and the Hotsy Totsy unites sourdough and habanero jack cheese. All of these options come with a cup of soup; tomato bisque is a classic partner.
Grilled cheese and summer tomato soup ($10) at The Black Sheep, 367 Connecticut St.
Pastry chef/co-owner Ellen Gedra bakes fluffy white bread from scratch for this sandwich. The slices are coated in mayonnaise and Parmesan before hitting the griddle, and two cheeses – mozzarella and cheddar – combine for the gooey insides.
There are no shortcuts with the soup, either. Chef-owner Steven Gedra preserved four bushels of summer tomatoes from Sunset Farm in Allegany County to elevate this comfort combo. He expects to have enough tomatoes to last into April.
[Review: Local sourcing plays major role in Black Sheep's mission]
Pressed grilled cheese ($7.50) at Homegrown Bistro, 4211 N. Buffalo St., Orchard Park.
Homegrown's pressed grilled cheese, made by owner Katie Gordon-Seitz, is open to customization. It can be crafted on housemade white or wheat, or on gluten-free bread sourced from Kith & Kin in Lockport; with cheddar cheese or dairy-free cheese; and served either plain or with either roasted or fresh tomatoes. The meal, tomato soup included, can be pulled off without any dairy or gluten.
To show the extent Homegrown caters to restrictive diets, the bistro will use plant-based butter to ensure the grilled cheese mimics the classic version. Gordon-Seitz cares because she understands the battle; she fights two autoimmune diseases that render her gluten-free, dairy free and allergic to several common ingredients.
The Cheesus ($8) from the Cheesy Chick, 5385 Main St., Williamsville, as well as two food trucks.
The Rowan family business, which includes a cafe in Williamsville and two food trucks, is predicated on grilled cheese. A standard costs $5, but the Cheesus – macaroni and cheese, made daily, stuffed between two grilled cheese sandwiches – is the unquestioned star of the menu.
"One time during Lent we had someone say, 'I'm going to go Cheesus for Jesus today,' " said Stefanie Rowan, who operates one of the Cheesy Chick food trucks. At the cafe only, grilled cheese can be served as a vegan options or on gluten-free bread.
'Without bacon,' please
These two popular grilled cheese items are usually prepared with bacon, but they are so good they shouldn't be ignored during Lent. Just ask for them without the bacon – and we'll never say that in any other circumstance.
Winfield's Pub, 1213 Ridge Road, Lackawanna. Grilled cheese bites with tomato soup ($9), jalapeno bread and easy-to-dip option compensate for the porky omission. The bites are offered with sauteed mushrooms and arugula, replacing bacon, for another vegetarian selection.
Joe's Panini Grill, 3024 Delaware Ave., Kenmore. Adult grilled cheese panini ($8.99) has mozzarella, provolone and cheddar cheese with chipotle mayo and tomato, served on a 9-inch seeded Italian roll.
Classics on a budget
Swannie House, 170 Ohio St. Plain grilled cheese for $3.95. Classic, cash-only pub.
Low Bridge Cafe at Explore & More, 130 Main St. Classic grilled cheese ($3.50) on whole wheat or white bread.
Wiechec's Lounge, 1748 Clinton St. The line is out the door for the fish fry, but if you don't want to join your friends in that endeavor, a classic grilled cheese is $3.50.