April is National Grilled Cheese Month, a celebration that culminates with a formal holiday on April 12. If we were as demonstrative as, say, the Spanish — with their tomato-throwing festival in August — National Grilled Cheese Day would be marked by a grand parade and events like a grilled-cheese eating contest.
Here in the United States, it’s rare to have a public celebration for an ingredient or a dish. That’s not to say we don’t profess devotion to it.
High on the list of grilled-cheese admirers is Anthony Leis Jr., an East Islip native who started out at Dowling College wanting to be an entrepreneur, and graduated in 2013 wanting to open a restaurant. Stints working at Carrabba’s and Bubba’s Burrito Bar in Islip sealed his conviction.
Rather than offering a wide menu at his restaurant, he knew he wanted to go niche. Doughnuts, noodles and tacos didn’t resonate. But cheese, he decided, is compelling enough to build a business around.
The result is AJ’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese Shop in Bay Shore, a 20-seat restaurant he opened in February, where his entire family works, including his mother, Donna, his father (also a partner), Anthony Sr., his sister, his brother, his brother’s girlfriend, two cousins and his fiancee.
AJ’s is very straightforward and, for straightforward tastes, it fits the bill. With a few tables and a window counter, it’s walk-up ordering, grab-your-own-utensils and eat off paper plates on a tray. It’s bright and clean, with a playlist along the lines of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I don’t know that I’d call the place gourmet, but the smiling mascot, a grilled cheese with a face and a toque, is awfully cute.
As it turns out, the customers flocking here aren’t looking for anything fancy. Leis says he sells 600 grilled cheese sandwiches on a Saturday, including one cut into sticks for dipping in tomato soup.
That soup is more of a bisque, thick and chunky with a little bit of cream. Other soups are sold as specials, such as Manhattan clam chowder or broccoli Cheddar.
For a sandwich with more varied ingredients, go for the veggie melt with broccoli, onions and peppers, or the salad with grilled cheese cubes, tomatoes and carrots on romaine. I’m also a fan of the apple-bacon number, a fun combination of textures, sweet and savory. Leis’ favorite is The Southern sandwich with pork smothered in barbecue sauce and layered with Cheddar. Sandwiches are served on slices of respectable sourdough, or grocery-store white or wheat, with or without crust.
Life can’t be all grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes you have to diversify with mac-and-cheese, such as an order topped with crispy Buffalo chicken, a breast cut in bite-size pieces that lend a vinegary kick. I wish the noodles weren’t so soggy. Other variations on mac-and-cheese include steak, barbecue chicken, jalapeño and lobster, available as sides or meals.
My favorite dish here may not even be a grilled cheese, but rather ice cream on brioche, a dessert Leis discovered during a trip to Disney World. I tend to seek it out at gelato shops but was surprised to find it here.
When you’re being waited on by fresh-faced high school students or the owner’s mother, it’s hard not to feel warmly toward this place — where every day is grilled cheese day, with or without fanfare.