As with coffee and bread, cheese has undergone a transformation in recent years, with a nod to premium and artisan influences on menus across the board. Today’s cheeseburgers, pizzas, sandwiches and other items are less likely to rely on common American or Swiss than they are to call out more specific varieties, or a blend of several, as menus grow more descriptive and consumers look for more transparency and authenticity in their meals.
Although traditions die hard—mozzarella, cheddar, provolone, Parmesan and feta still rule menus, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor—operators continue to seize the opportunity to raise the bar on cheese in a variety of ways.
Choose your own cheese
In the ever-popular melted cheese category, for instance, choice is king. Pick-your-own is the rule at Tom + Chee, a fast-casual chain serving up tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, among other items. There, customers can specify their sandwiches be made with American, Wisconsin cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, smoked Gouda, pepper jack, vegan or goat cheese.
The Melt, a fast-casual restaurant with locations in California and Texas, offers its Three Cheese Classic, which combines sharp cheddar, Muenster and fontina.
Sandwiches, pastas and pizzas are also bypassing the most popular styles to incorporate American specialties such as colby, Monterey Jack and muenster, as well as herb-infused varieties.
Less-common white cheddar, for instance, has grown 46% as a sandwich ingredient and 60% as a pizza ingredient over the past two years, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor. Menu mentions of white cheddar at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants have increased 24% during that time.
Cheese lends more local flavor to the menu, even at national chains. Smashburger’s Local Love burgers build local cred with more than 40 variations; the NOLA model sports Creole mustard sauce, lettuce, fried green tomatoes, mayo and aged Swiss on an egg bun, while the St. Louis burger piles provolone, garlic grilled mushrooms, grilled onions and sweet bell peppers on a pretzel bun.
Queso is trending up, and not just at Mexican concepts. Wendy’s recently debuted a queso-topped bacon cheeseburger, chicken sandwich and fries. TGI Fridays’ new Loaded Bacon Nachos feature a white poblano queso. Not to be outdone, Chipotle recently launched a spicy queso test in limited markets, and Del Taco rolled out its queso blanco made with white cheese.
Cheese fries are elevating a menu mainstay to new levels of flavor and texture. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, for instance, paired a Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Burger with a similarly themed side; the cheddar sauce is blended with Budweiser, and bacon is crumbled over the fries. The Melt’s Naked Fries are smothered in creamy cheddar, fontina, provolone, bacon and crispy onions.
Potatoes and cheese always go together well, so it’s no surprise that, in addition to fries, potato chips featuring cheeses are also growing in popularity. Stonewood Grill in Jacksonville, Fla. offers fresh-cut chips, topped with blue cheese crumbles and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. And on the more widely available side, Miss Vickie’s® has introduced a Farmhouse White Cheddar kettle cooked potato chip.
Similarly, cheese curds have morphed from an upper-Midwest niche item to a popular snack or side. These poppable bites typically incorporate some variety of cheddar; A&W has won scores of fans for its Wisconsin White Cheddar version, while Buffalo Wild Wings serves Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds with Southwestern ranch dressing for dipping.
Layering several cheeses into a dish adds more flavor and makes for more drool-inducing menu descriptions. Arby’s last year introduced a Three Cheese Steak Sandwich that marries Swiss, cheddar and Gouda to Angus steak, peppercorn sauce and crispy onion strings. And a number of chefs are upping the crave factor on simple mac and cheese by blending in mozzarella, pepper jack, fontina and aged cheddar, or another mix.
This post is sponsored by Miss Vickie's