Cheesy Times: Grilled Cheese Invitational

One sunny Sunday two weeks ago, I went to the Grilled Cheese Invitational. It was my first time checking out this event and after hearing more than a few tales of long lines and little food, I was surprised how well-run the event was. First, it must be noted I love food festivals of all sorts and I normally expect some sort of waiting about. The fun usually outweighs the bad. However, there was nothing bad about this event.

Tillamook Cheese

Tillamook Grilled Cheese

This year’s event was sponsored by Tillamook Cheese and they really brought out a lot to the event. Not just a booth but four! One was handing out grilled cheese sandwiches (medium cheese, Monterey Jack and Pepper Jack on sourdough) and the other three flanked by adorable Tillamook Love Loaf buses, gave out cubes of cheese and all manner of swag.

pasta salad from Mendocino Farms

Another sponsor, Mendocino Farms was handing out samples. I snagged this light tomato sauced-pasta. They also sold a couple of sandwiches including their French Onion Soup melt. From now until May 6, you can get the winning Grilled Cheese Invitational sandwich, the Whole Enchilada, all locations.

The WHOLE Enchilada: Roasted Chicken Breast smothered in Housemade Enchilada Sauce with Cheddar and Pepperjack Fondue, Pickled Red Onions, Queso Fresco Crema, Cilantro, and Black Olives Panini Pressed on Rustic White, with a side of Smashed Avocados $9.25

All proceeds go to the American Red Cross to benefit victims of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami

It seems you also can’t have grilled cheese sandwiches with out drinks, chips or pickles. Sponsors included Izze Sparkling Juice, Boulder Canyon Chips and Krugermann pickles.

Cheese guy handing out water

cheese grater and cheese costumes

Part of the fun of the Grilled Cheese Invitational are the costumes. Part of the appeal of GCI are the humble beginnings out of founder Tim Walker’s living room. The quirky contest grew to include regional competitions and over 8000 folks attended this year’s event.

GCI's Tim Walker

Hot Knives face off Chef Ricardo Zarate

Vegetarian cookbook authors Hot Knives competed against Food and Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef Ricardo Zarate (owner of Mo-Chica and the soon-to-be-open Picca). The Hot Knives brought their cheese encrusted grilled cheese while Chef Ricardo had a secret ingredient or two of his own. His anticucho sauce added immense flavor to the “vegetarian” lamb (procured from Lindy & Grundy) and cheese and bread from Whole Foods.

Guess who won? Yep, Chef Ricardo.  That lamb was delicious.  I didn’t watch the other face-offs as there were so many things to do. Loved the marching band and there were food trucks and grilled cheese stands to explore. But first, I tried my hand at getting a sandwich from one of the hundreds competing that day.

vote vote vote!

pizza grilled cheese

I stood with the general public and hooted and hollered for a sandwich. I overheard someone saying she felt like we were waiting for an UN drop and her friend replied, “is my stomach distended yet?” Well, some may disagree this wasn’t the best way to receive the glorious cheese but previous years, you had to line up for individual competitors and this caused major lines. By having volunteers hand out sandwiches to appreciative cheese enthusiasts, it became less about the wait and more about the entertainment. I did my best with the cheering until I was awarded with this pizza grilled cheese (what I’m calling it- tomato sauce, cheese and sausage).

The Oaks Pork Belly Grilled Cheese

Greenspan's Grilled Cheese - Buffalo Chicken

Greenspan's Grilled Cheese- The Champ

Some friends of mine arrived at this time and I ran around with them trying some sammies from the grilled cheese stands including Mendocino Farms, The Oaks Gourmet and Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese. I went in for the kill and had the Oak’s pork belly grilled cheese. It was very good and not at all fatty (well, oily if you will). Friends preferred Mendocino Farms over Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese which brought both their champ (minus the short ribs) and a new contender with Buffalo chicken.

The Elvis from Daily Dose

Then we were ready for something sweet and hit up Daily Dose for their Elvis.

Nacho Tots from Dogtown Dogs

But wait, we weren’t quite done yet. We had to round out our day with nacho tots (and plain tots!) from Dogtown Dogs. I actually felt a bit bad for the food trucks this day. Other than the Grilled Cheese Truck which brought both their trucks, most of the trucks were slow. Everyone was there for grilled cheese sandwiches and although the trucks brought some modified grilled cheese sandos to sell, people visited more out of curiosity than the mob scene that was the first LA Street Food Fest held at the same location.

All in all, it was a great event. I look forward to the next one!

The Grilled Cheese Invitational