There’s a large, brightly colored school bus parked on a lot off the corner of Alberta and Northeast 11th Avenue. But this isn’t just any old school bus; this is a combination seating area, art studio, and trip down memory lane. It’s the spot where one can delight in new ways of discovering a simple, yet beloved childhood meal: the grilled cheese sandwich. Welcome to a north Portland tradition, The Grilled Cheese Grill.
Originally opened in 2008 by New Jersey native Matthew Breslow, the idea behind The Grilled Cheese Grill was born out of a simple meal on a Sunday afternoon. “One day I was hanging out with my cousin. We were having lunch and decided to make whatever we had,” Breslow explains. “He had half a loaf of bread, some turkey, and some cheddar cheese, so we ended up making a grilled cheese sandwich. Then it hit me and I thought, man you can really make a lot of menu items out of a grilled cheese sandwich and create a whole place around it.”
Before he could create that place, however, Breslow had some research to do. Prior to his arrival in Portland, he’d gotten a degree in film and spent time in Los Angeles. While there he did what most film graduates do and spent a few years trying to find that big break.
As is often the case of the struggling actor, it didn’t take long for the obligatory Plan B to quickly become the necessary Plan A. “I decided I wasn’t interested in that anymore and my backup plan was always to open up a restaurant,” he states without hesitation.
Despite going to film school, Breslow’s entire working life up to that point seemed to involve food. “While in high school and college all my jobs were restaurant jobs,” he says. “I always loved working in restaurants and with food.”
So with L.A. in his review mirror, he headed up to Portland, a place he was familiar with. “I was born and raised in New Jersey,” he explains. “But I grew up having family in Oregon. I visited a couple times with my grandmother when I was a kid and was always drawn towards wanting to come here.”
Now that he’d left his film career behind and high-tailed it to Portland, how would he go about ensuring his novel grilled cheese restaurant idea ever saw the light of day? As it turns out, there were more questions than answers. The first was how to provide a casual eating environment in an outdoor establishment.
“The first question that anybody would ask me when I told them about my idea was how to make it viable in a city that rains eight months out of the year,” he says. “So we asked ourselves if we could provide some indoor seating in a vehicle.”
This was the moment of epiphany that would provide the anchor for Breslow’s courageous idea. What better way to openly celebrate the memory of a delicious grilled cheese sandwich on a cool rainy day than inside of a school bus?
“Once we realized we could do that, it was really a no brainer,” he says. “That became what our whole marketing strategy was centered around. I knew people would be intrigued by it and it made sense. It wasn’t a hard sell.”
The bus itself would prove to be as important to the experience as the food. The tables have what appear to be high school photos from the days of yore under a heavy clear lacquer. “They are old yearbook photos,” Breslow confirms. “One table is all my family including me.”
Along the side of the bus under the windows is one long table with accompanying stools. The roof is completely covered in abstract art, providing Portland-style homage to the Sistine Chapel.
With the bus having answered the weather and possibly marketing questions, the next and perhaps equally as important question in Breslow’s mind centered squarely on the idea itself. How would he ensure the concept was one that people would understand and actively seek out?
“Grilled cheese is a food that people have such a strong relationship with,” Breslow explains. “It’s probably one of the foods most people learn how to cook first. So trying to sell people on a grilled cheese restaurant requires an extra step. If you open a chicken wing place, people know what that is. People know what a pizza place is. But when you say you’re opening up a grilled cheese restaurant you have to really do it well in order for people to make that leap.”
Fortunately the simple grilled cheese sandwich provides an excellent template from which one can do a little culinary leaping. Take, for example, the Jumping Fighter, described as having provolone cheese with ham, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, and house made basil pesto on multigrain bread.
As if the cheesy goodness wasn’t enough, there are also some truly mouthwatering desserts such as the Mrs. B, which is delectably represented by melted brie, sliced Braeburn apples and a tangy apple butter on cinnamon swirl bread.
Their most popular offering could, for better or for worse, be described as a symbol of today’s voracious American appetite. “The Cheesus is pretty damn popular, surprisingly enough,” Breslow says. “When it went on the menu, I never thought we’d sell that many of them, but it gets ordered all the time, especially during late nights.”
The appropriately named Cheesus is essentially a burger, but in place of the buns are two grilled cheese sandwiches, one atop the other. The first contains pickles and American cheese and the second grilled onions and Colby Jack cheese. In between rests the lettuce, ketchup, mustard and quarter pound burger. This is a grilled cheese sandwich that most definitely, and quite loudly, speaks for itself.
Despite the delicious food and unique atmosphere, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Breslow and his daring endeavor. Intent on capitalizing on his success Alberta success, Breslow opened a second cart downtown and a third on a double decker bus in Southeast Portland. While the Alberta and downtown locations have thrived, he’s been forced to sell the Southeast location.
“It’s the right concept, but not the right location,” Breslow says. “We do really well when there’s a mix of a strong neighborhood and an out of town element. Southeast 28th Avenue is in a great neighborhood, but in order for us to stay viable we need to have that out of town element that comes to the neighborhood as well.”
Breslow also entertained a downtown brick-n-mortar establishment, but soon found that was easier said than done. “We got close a year and a half ago. We negotiated with the owners of the building, who were a huge conglomerate in Chicago. Those negotiations kind of fell through and that’s when I had the idea for a mobile unit,” he reports.
Both the mobile unit and securing a new cart for the Alberta location will now take up most of Breslow’s planning for the first half of the new year. He has big goals for his new home here in Portland and plans on making it a long-term relationship. “Portland just has a much mellower vibe,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Where I grew up on the east coast,” he continues, “you could tell that there’s a negativity that tends to shut ideas down before they ever have a chance to blossom. Here everyone seems to be in a better mood. You just get this feeling from the people. With that comes a little more adventurousness and the desire to try new things. Here you can try something crazy and people will be a little more open to it.”
And open to it Portland’s certainly been. The Grilled Cheese Grill is as equally on the minds of those searching for a delicious meal after a late night out as it is for the neighborhood family seeking tasty creations on a Sunday afternoon.
“That’s why I love it here!” Breslow exclaims. Fortunately for him and his satisfied customers, the love appears to be mutual.
For menu and location information, check out The Grilled Cheese Grill on the web or give them a call at (503)206-7018.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, journalist, and copywriter who has been writing professionally for over nine years. He currently works from his home in Vancouver, Washington and is excited to bring you the best that the Portland restaurant scene has to offer.