Why the burger-sandwich hybrid isn’t going anywhere—and is getting new life in the hands of creative chefs.
Leonardo had his Mona Lisa. Kanye, his Kim. I have last year’s cover of Sports Illustrated featuring LeBron James pinned to my cubicle wall. (Just throwing it out there)
And these days, chefs are claiming the classic patty melt as their new muse.
“The patty melt is fun to play with because it’s so simple and there is nothing to hide behind,” says Carmen Quagliata, the executive chef of the recently reopened Union Square Cafe in New York City. “The sear of the meat, the crispiness of the bread, the seasonings, the melt of the cheese. It all adds up to something truly amazing.”
“The patty melt is iconic to us because we are sandwich lovers, and melted cheese freaking rules,” says Mason Hereford, the chef and owner behind Restaurant of the Year Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans.
The stack of griddled beef patties, Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and slices of rye is said to have got its start in Los Angeles in the 1950s, the invention of restaurateur Tiny Naylor. And while in the 2000s, chefs started a game of one-upping each other with reimagined burgers—Sang Yoon’s strictly ketchup-less burgers at Father’s Office in Los Angeles, Daniel Boulud’s decadent sliders at DBGB in New York City—the distant cousin of the burger wasn’t getting much love. That is, until now.
Patty melts are making a comeback across the country—and in all forms. At KronnerBurger in Oakland, chef Chris Kronner stuck the sandwich on the menu (and in his upcoming cookbook) because it was so opposite of the simple burgers he had at the restaurant.
“It’s more on the maximalist side,” he says. “The patty melt is the hangover version of the KronnerBurger. I love the combination of the funky dry-aged beef (the same beef we use for the burgers) and the really hot mustard similar to Chinese mustard.”
Chef Jaime Young also swipes a nose-tingling mustard on his patty melt at Sunday in Brooklyn in NYC. He folds in raw white onions and pickles into the patty (“Less of a chance for all those goodies to fall out,” he says), then tops it with caramelized onions cooked down in fish sauce and caraway seed.
However, in this new age of the patty melt, it’s not just about the meat. Quagliata brought back the broccoli melt to Daily Provisions, his all-day spot right around the corner from Union Square Cafe, and Hereford has tapped collard greens for what first started out as a very different kind of sandwich.
“We wanted to hook up the vegetarians with the delightful flavors of the Reuben sandwich,” says Hereford.
Inspired by “The Sam,” a Reuben-like sandwich with pastrami, swiss, slaw and Russian dressing at Stein’s in New Orleans, Hereford's team slow-cooked collard greens with rice wine vinegar, butter, sugar and garlic then layer on melted Swiss cheese, coleslaw and pickled cherry pepper dressing for this hybrid patty melt.
“Definitely a hit with the meat eaters as much, if not more, than the herbivores,” he says. “I eat it a lot.”