Once upon a time, about a year ago, a little food booth popped up on Fountain Square. It offered warmth and comfort to the Square's ice rink patrons, with coffee, hot chocolate, and its namesakes, tomato soup and grilled cheese. Garnering it extra media attention was Tom + Chee's quirky specialty, an inside-out glazed donut grilled cheese sandwich.
I sorely missed them as a lunchtime option during the frigid January and February days after skating season was over. But after all the ice-rink paraphernalia was removed and the Square reopened for other events in the spring, T+C was back – and determined.
They were a steadfast presence on the Square not only for Market Tuesdays (which hosted a great array of other small food vendors) but also just about every weekday lunch. Unless precluded from opening due to inclement weather or because another, larger hometown food vendor (most likely of Cincy chili) was sponsoring an event on the Square, T+C was there for lunch.
They were also there in the evenings for the blossoming schedule of events on the Square, often talking up Square events on their facebook page more than tooting their own horn. They tried offering breakfast from the booth, which didn’t garner enough traffic during those early, blustery spring days to warrant continuing. So they experimented and fine-tuned, riffing on their original tomato (soup) and (grilled) cheese concept as the seasons changed.
As temperatures rose, they expanded the menu into salads, including a Caprese made with thick slices of excellent fresh mozzarella (which remains on the menu), a couple of stuffed tomato salads - one with smoked chicken salad and another filled with seriously delicious coffee-rubbed grilled steak and blue cheese (I’m hoping it will reappear) - and this salad of fresh greens and “grilled cheese croutons,” which has become a staple.
They also diversified in the grilled cheese arena, offering daily specials ranging from the Working Man’s Chee (bologna, onions, and cheese on rye)
In the soup realm, T+C offered a cold, zesty chunky gazpacho throughout the summer.
Loved this cheesy veg-filled corn chowder. (Trust me, there's lots of veggies in there - maybe they just sank to the bottom of the bowl, too shy for a close-up? Or because "Cheese Floats"?).
While some of the city’s most interesting and entrepreneurial new food vendors have decided to give up brick-and-mortar locations in favor of trying the food truck option (such as New Orleans To Go), the T+C team always seemed to have its heart set on using its Fountain Square tent as a springboard to a permanent indoor location, as demonstrated by this little Lego creation, a tip jar of sorts for the T+C "Building Fund."
Photo courtesy of Thadd Fiala
Last summer Tom + Chee secured a space on Court Street just west of Main, across the street from the Courthouse. During their off hours from the booth on the Square, they spruced up the interior and dealt with a variety of infrastructure issues, like water, electric, and inspections. I remember the location as being formerly occupied by Patoushnik’s (was that 10 years ago?), which had soups and sandwiches worth making the lunchtime trek for. While I’m hoping positive soup karma will bless Tom + Chee, I’m also thrilled to see how much they’ve brightened up the place with fresh paint and their signature yellow and red colors.
On Friday, I opted for a couple of daily specials I hadn't seen before: 'Shrooms and Swiss on Rye and Spicy Mushroom Soup with Gouda. Loved them both! (My only disappointment was to find the lid on those new soup containers wasn't securely fastened, so some of the delectable soup was lost in transport.)
And I can’t wait to taste what T+C will do next. Continuing the comfort food theme, they plan to add pot pies, meatloaf, and mac ‘n’ cheese to the menu once they get that pesky oven up and running, plus a variety of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Eventually, they want to add breakfast and dinner, maybe even late night fare, and expand to additional locations. They also hope to make more ingredients in-house, I'm told (like pesto and hummus), and in an ideal world would love to serve veggies from their own garden.
Meanwhile, Tom + Chee continues in its booth on Fountain Square during the December ice-skating season ("Of course," Mrs. Tom told me. "That's where we got our start!), although they sensibly close the booth when the cold results in too few patrons. For updates on when they'll be open at both locations and what they'll be offering, check out their continually updated facebook page.
It’s a step at a time for these determined and pragmatic folks, and their Court Street opening is a big one. Tom + Chee offers affordable comfort food done well. While many of their offerings have a sense of whimsy, it’s clear they’re serious about their food and continually pushing it to the next level. As it says on a plaque I spotted at their Court Street location, "Never, Never, Never Give Up."