A novel ingredient is showing up on the menus at many of Dallas' hottest restaurants, such as Remedy, Knife, Proof + Pantry and Dallas Grilled Cheese Co. The ingredient is creamy and lush. It brings a sinful decadence while simultaneously evoking powerful memories of childhood.
It's a garish orange, and it comes in squares. You got it: The trend in Dallas dining right now is American cheese.
At Knife, chef John Tesar's groundbreaking steakhouse at the Highland Dallas hotel, American cheese stars in the renowned Ozersky burger, where its subtle firmness slowly yields, a textural counterpoint to the meat.
"What makes American cheese special is that when it melts, it becomes perfectly and evenly viscous," says Esquire restaurant editor Josh Ozersky.
On chef Kyle McLelland's $15 Pantry burger at Proof + Pantry, it's a strangely beautiful slice of geometry beneath the frilly green lettuce. At Remedy, it's a soft cream that oozes over the bologna in chef Danyele McPherson's fried bologna sandwich; it also cloaks her crisp fried fish sandwich. At Dallas Grilled Cheese Co., it's the resolute center between two slices of grilled white bread.
On the scale of gourmet foods — with say, black radishes at 10, with 10 being best — American cheese would have previously come in at 1, consigned to the realm of fast-food restaurants and greasy spoons. But chefs have reembraced an ingredient that ultimately performs in a way that other ingredients can't.
American cheese was pointedly not on the menu when chef Jason Boso launched the first branch of his gourmet burger concept Twisted Root Burger Co. in 2005.
"My attitude was that I wasn't going to have it," Boso says. "I would say, 'That's not cheese, it's processed bullshit.' But people would get mad it wasn't on the menu. So many people asked for it that I had to add it as an option."
More cheesy than you think
If anyone can make a case for American cheese, it's Philadelphia author and noted junk-food expert Carolyn Wyman, who wrote Better Than Homemade, a history of processed foods like Twinkies and Velveeta, and 2009's The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book.
"American cheese is actually 80 percent real cheese," she says. "It's not as fake as you think." She says that American cheese is a "perfect example" of what processed food should do.
"It's the very thing that Kraft started," she says. "Taking cheese — which is something smelly and difficult to deal with and spoils easily and is intense — and turning it into something approachable that lasts a long time. American cheese doesn't crumble.
"Even the shape of it was designed to fit on a sandwich, so you don't have to cut it. Cheese has a lot of issues in its natural form; processing makes it better."
Boso says he's come to appreciate the nostalgic value. That's also key for retro restaurants such as Remedy, the reimagined soda fountain on Greenville Avenue, where McPherson buys American cheese in 5-pound blocks, pre-sliced. Dallas Grilled Cheese Co., the upscale sandwich shop in Bishop Arts, features American cheese along with high-end curds such as Brie and Gruyere.
Kraft baby Kraft
But the game changer was Knife, whose menu features the $12 Ozersky burger, topped with American cheese — "Kraft, baby, Kraft," Tesar says — next to a $58 steak au poivre. The burger is named after Josh Ozersky, James Beard Award-winning writer and restaurant editor of Esquire magazine. He also is the author of several books, including The Hamburger: A History.
Ozersky, who is writing a cookbook with Tesar titled Knife: Modern Steak and All American Meats, has been singing the praises of American cheese for at least a decade.
"I understand the value of aged English cheddar and double Gloucester and raw cow's milk cheese, but none has the properties that American cheese has, which can be summed up in its supreme meltability," he says. "What makes American cheese special is that when it melts, it becomes perfectly and evenly viscous, different from nasty things like Velveeta that enter a liquid state.
"When you use expensive farmhouse cheddars, one thing I find vile about them is that they break the way butter does," he says. "Half of it turns to grease, and half turns to milk solids."
A self-proclaimed "hamburger fundamentalist," Ozersky says his favorite Dallas burger joint is Keller's Drive-In, where American cheese and a "squishy" bun serve as the burger's "alpha and omega."
At Knife, his burger requires careful assembly, with the attention to detail you'd expect from a chef.
"A lot of places focused on the bottom line give you one slice of cheese," Ozersky says. "I give you two, and have them carefully arranged in the shape of the Star of David, with the eight compass points, and then add them after the burger is off the grill. Go ahead and say you haven't been experiencing that with American cheese.
"In reclaiming what have always been our signature foods, American cheese is central," he says.