Macy Crowe
The Bulletin

What: Tennessee’s Grill Cheese

Where: 1009 NW Galveston Ave., Bend

Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Contact: tennesseesgrillcheese.com or 541-213-8180

On a chilly January afternoon, it’s hard not to think to yourself: A grilled cheese sandwich sounds good right now. If you happen to be driving down Galveston Avenue, Tennessee’s Grill Cheese makes it easy to satisfy that comfort food craving.

Question is: Is it grilled cheese or grill cheese?

Chris Honey, owner of Tennessee’s Grill Cheese, has heard that question many times before. “That’s just my slang,” Honey said with a thick Tennessee accent. “You get what you see and you get what you hear with me.”

On a recent afternoon, Honey fussed with a pile of pulled pork on a large flattop grill while cooking inside his food truck. He was preparing his signature grilled cheese sandwich, The Memphis Melt, which is stuffed with pulled pork, house-made barbecue sauce and smoked Gouda.

Honey opened Tennessee’s Grill Cheese last spring, after researching trending food items on the internet and landing on grilled cheese. The food truck, located next to Aspect Boards & Brews, serves up a variety of specialty grilled cheeses, mac and cheese, tomato soup, jambalaya and rotating specials, like alligator and crawfish.

Honey found a new food-truck cuisine niche with his menu.

He is no stranger to Southern comfort food because of his Memphis roots. For 20 years, he was a member of a competitive cooking team for O’Malley’s Bar & Grill in Tennessee. The team competed in the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Rajun Cajun Crawfish Festival both in Memphis.

“I took some of my barbecue roots and some of my Creole roots, my Cajun roots, the Southern stuff that I know and blended it in with the grilled cheese,” Honey said. Just like the sign on the bright red truck’s exterior, his goal is to “Put a little South in yo mouth.”

Honey is pleased with his food truck’s success so far, but he hopes that Guy Fieri will show up at the window one day to taste his creations for an episode of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” After all, Honey’s mac and cheese and grilled cheese dishes are exactly the type of fare that would be on the show.

“It’s funny. I’ve seen Guy make a big deal about stuff that I’ve been doing for a long time,” Honey said. “He made this big to-do about putting mac and cheese on a burger; well, I’ve been putting mac and cheese on sandwiches my whole life. Whatever you want, we’ll put mac and cheese on everything.”

What’s on the menu?

So what’s so special about grilled cheese? Well, this isn’t just a slice of Kraft American cheese sandwiched between white bread (although, that is available on the menu for the purists). Honey has developed his own sandwich creations, such as the Spicy Pig, made with bacon, homemade jalapeño cream cheese and cheddar cheese on sourdough bread. Or The Rancher: garlic roasted chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese and ranch dressing between two slices of sourdough bread.

On a recent visit, Bend resident Shawn Anzaldo ordered the Spicy Pig for the first time. “His stuff always looks really good,” she said. “And I definitely like to support the local guys and try new things.”

Aside from the smoked Gouda and Kraft American cheese, all of his cheeses are Tillamook dairy products, and the sandwiches are made on Big Ed’s Artisan sourdough bread.

Chris Botkin, an employee at Aspect Boards & Brews, orders a grilled ham and cheese about once a week. “It’s kind of that comfort food,” Botkin said. “Good, hearty winter food.”

Is there a secret ingredient? “I do have a trick; it’s an old trick and everybody probably knows it, but not everybody wants to know it,” Honey said. “It’s called mayonnaise.” Instead of using butter, Honey spreads mayonnaise on the outer sides of the bread before grilling to get an extra crispy taste, a trick that he learned from his grandmother.

He also makes a classic mac and cheese, a bacon mac and cheese and a barbecue pulled pork mac and cheese.

The sandwiches may be the bread and butter, but the weekly specials shouldn’t be overlooked either. Every week, Honey creates a jambalaya with chicken, sausage, okra and tomatoes. Sometimes he also has crawfish and gator on the menu. The gator is a spicy alligator sausage from Lafayette, Louisiana. It’s a blend of pork sausage, alligator tail, Cajun-Creole seasoning and peppers that can be crumbled over the top of the mac and cheese or placed inside one of the sandwiches.

A look ahead

As it gets closer to summer, the menu at Tennessee Grill Cheese will include more Southern-style fish dishes like blackened tuna. There will also be smoked salmon and veggie medleys. “For the most part, Bend is health-conscious — veggies, not a lot of fried — and then you think about the summertime when everybody’s drinking water, and it’s hot and everybody’s doing stuff,” Honey said. “You can’t be loading up a big old hearty sandwich, it just doesn’t go, so that’s why we want to switch gears.”

In the next two months, Honey plans to open a second mobile Tennessee Grill Cheese food cart to bring to festivals and events. That way he can keep the truck stationed at Aspect Board & Brews during the summertime with set hours.

Like many food truck owners, Honey hopes to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant at some point. He would sell the same types of sandwiches. In his perfect world, this would also include a create-your-own bloody mary bar. “Grilled cheese, bacon, mac and cheese — all that stuff goes really nicely with a bloody mary,” Honey said. “So that’s the ultimate goal, a bloody mary bar and pub.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0351, mcrowe@bendbulletin.com .

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