In the mad dash to check out all the "French" food venues I could for the AFBA on line City Guide 2013, I had to quickly check out a tip I received for Melvin's. I heard their Croque Monsieur had been written up as something spectacular. As Melvin's is a happy bright red trailer located at 53rd and Duval, I figured leaving at 11h30 from my house would allow me get me there, score this croque monsieur, and get to French class for noon. Time is of the essence now to visit these spots before my write-up is due. And Melvin's is only open from 11 to 2, Monday through Friday.
Let us consider for a moment the croque monsieur. It is, at bottom, a ham and cheese sandwich. It is omnipresent in France, a staple among basic cafe fare items. If one is hungry for quick but filling sustenance after walking along the Seine, up to the Quai Branly and down to l'Institut du Monde Arabe, back up the Right Bank to the Louvre, Place de la Concorde, sighing wistfully for hours, a croque monsieur hits the spot. And it's hard to get it wrong. Or so you would think.
Having spent many hours working up an appetite in walking up and down the Seine over the last three decades, I have had a fair number of very mediocre croques monsieurs. There are many things that can go wrong on it: not broiling it enough to make it nice and hot; not having enough Bechamel sauce and cheese on top to make it bubbly and golden brown and crusty crispy; lackluster innards, i.e., bland cheese (rather than a great gruyere) and/or benign ham, like just a thin slice of ham, obviously pulled up out of a plastic package.
The red trailer that is Melvin's is easy to spot on the corner, in a parking lot (parking is easy). There are two picnic tables set up in the parking lot. It is cold. I will not be sitting at a picnic table.
I order the Croque Monsieur. The perky order-taker tells me: "Ok, now the croque monsieur takes a little longer, so just warning you." Drats..."How much longer? I need to get to French class?" 10 minutes she says.
I'm too far in. I say ok. And now I'm intrigued that they will be taking their time with this Croque Monsieur. I wait: I pace in the cold; I sit in the car; I get back out and pace in the cold. "One more minute, Liz!," she tells me. Adorable. Others have lined up and already gotten their orders. I realize I will have to hurriedly eat this in the car while driving to French class.
She hands me a white box. I open the white box in the car. There it is. The Croque Monsieur. Along with the homemade potato chips.
I pick it up and balance the heavy, ooozing cheesy buttery thing. It is heavy. It is hot. It is a hot mess.
A bite, balancing it all precariously as I try to start the car as well (impossible). Need two hands for this thing. It is delicious. Like gasp, and say things like, well, I won't repeat what I said and dig in more as it is dripping with cheese, sauce, butter, ham, drippings of all of this mixed together...
David Lebovitz wrote up some tips about food writing a while back. He said to refrain from just calling a food item "delicious" or "good." That is no help for the reader. So I will say exactly what made this so delicious.
Delicious is the hot tart cheese, hitting the tang of a unique non-commercial mustard, combined with the bubbly bechamel, and, the superstar: the sweet salty ham. It is ham as one would cook up in the frying pan, with it just starting to crisp up on the edges and curl up some. It it piled into and becomes one with the oozing cheese. All is in proportion. There is not a single mistake with this croque monsieur. Maybe the bread could hold up a little better. But it is a high quality meat, good strong cheese, and the tanginess of the mustard hitting the bechamel that make this an inspired croque monsieur.
I drive and eat, the steering wheel getting smeared with all the drippings as I bite and steer, holding the sandwich up so I can get keep my head straight while driving and get the mouth up under the sandwich.
By the time I get to French class, my hands are soaked with buttery salty goodness. I walk into class, proclaim I have just eaten the most magical croque monsieur ever, from a happy red trailer just blocks away, and go to wash my hands off. I try to explain to my French teacher that first magical moment of biting into the hot mess, which was really just moments earlier. And then I forget, again: she does not like cheese.
No need for the potato chips. They could be a little thicker for me in the homemade chip category. But don't waste the calories. The calories are well spent on the Croque Monsieur. Do not wait and eat it at home. Eat it immediately.
Now if only Melvin's could get its hands on some Cotes du Rhone to serve alongside that hot mess.