They call this magical creation a Cheese Frenchee, and they are predictably delicious.
The weather was all wrong the first time I pulled off West Center Road and into Don and Millie's Restaurant, out in the suburbs of Omaha—temperatures veered toward triple-digit territory, the parking lot baking in the day's infernal heat. I'd first been alerted to the existence of the deep-fried grilled cheese sandwich months earlier, and I got here as soon as I could, but my timing, it turned out, could not have been worse. This was the kind of day where even the most ambitious eater might find themselves thinking lustful thoughts about salad.
Your classic grilled cheese is a joy forever, on this most of us can agree—all that butter, all that crunch, generous amounts of orange molten liquid pouring from the insides. This is a dish best paired, however, with a cool, grey, or perhaps rainy day, and probably a bowl of tomato soup, with just a touch of cream and a plenty of black pepper. The grilled cheese is not really blindingly bright summer afternoon food, at least I didn't think so, certainly not the deep-fried version, and then I opened the Don & Millie's takeout container that held four evenly-cut triangles of glistening grilled cheese sandwich, dipped, coated, and fried. I went in for a bite or two—delicious, of course—then set it down, assuming I was finished. There was another bite. Then another. And just one more. Suddenly, it was gone—all gone. The thing was that good.
Don & Millie's didn't invent the Cheese Frenchee; the story of this curious creation goes way back to the 1950's, when two entrepreneurs in Lincoln, which is the capital of Nebraska, opened a restaurant called King's Food Host. Over a twenty-year period, they managed to get a large chunk of the middle of the country hooked on both their brand and their food, and one of the things people talked about the most was the Cheese Frenchie, also sometimes (particularly nowadays) referred to as a Cheese Frenchee. Why it got that name, who knows, some think it's because it bears a passing resemblance to the Croque Monsieur, which, of course, is French—whatever they called it and how it came to be is immaterial, really; what matters is that the Cheese Frenchee was created.
What also matters is that the Cheese Frenchee is still with us. King's Food Host, which later added a Tuna Frenchie, a Hot Dog Frenchie and the less well-received Pizza Frenchie to their menu, flopped in the early 1970's, disappearing from the landscape over time, but Nebraskans can still get their deep-fried fix, quite easily in fact, thanks to two regional fast food chains that appear to be doing just fine. There is Amigos, now known as Amigos/King's Classic, found in a lot of communities here at the front end of Nebraska, but then there is Don & Millie's, a hyper-regional concern, serving Omaha and Lincoln with just eight locations.
The charm of Don & Millie's may not immediately present itself to you; this is a rather old-fashioned—oh, fine, we'll say dated—kind of a restaurant, with its questionable style choices and unflattering lighting; the menu may not immediately jump out at you as unique or special, other than the fact that you can get everything from hamburgers to taco salads to baked potatoes, all at fairly reasonable prices.
Oh, and you can drink here, too, on the cheap—at the Don & Millie's I visited, margaritas were going for 99 cents, longnecks of Bud and Bud Light and Michelob Ultra for $1.99 each. There was a two for $6 deal on hamburgers, cheeseburgers, footlong hot dogs, a grilled chicken sandwich and a four-piece Cheese Frenchee, so naturally I went that route, selecting the cheeseburger as my second option.
The burger was good, really good, a classic little number, like something you'd find at an old drive-in, as if the last few decades, in which so much fast food has been replaced with tasteless, joyless, food-like product, had passed this particular restaurant by. But the real winner, besides the spectacularly crunchy, properly battered onion rings I ordered on top of the whole mess, was that grilled cheese.
Recipes for the Cheese Frenchee are easy to come by. This is not, after all, rocket science—bread, cheese, a dab of mayo is a common addition, and don't knock it until you've tried it. Then, instead of buttering the whole thing up and throwing it into the pan, you dip your creation in egg, batter it up with cracker crumbs or finely crushed cornflakes, toss it in the fryer, drain well, and serve almost immediately. This is exactly what I got for $3, as part of the two for $6 special, at Don & Millie's—four generously sized triangles of Cheese Frenchee, which I proceeded to wolf down, like I hadn't been fed in weeks. (I most definitely had.)
There were so many things I came to Nebraska to eat, from other quirky regional fast foods, on up to the current highlights of Omaha's restaurant scene—the Cheese Frenchee, however, was the thing I want more of. Lots more. That night, however, I ate a salad. A salad with vinaigrette. It felt like the right thing to do.