Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tom + Chee - The Little Pop-Up That Could

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 confess to still never having tried the donut grilled cheese. But as a downtown office worker, I was delighted last December to be able to zip out to their booth, mere footsteps from my workplace, and return to my desk with a warm and satisfying lunch of T+C's chunky tomato basil soup and whatever combination of grilled bread and cheese I ordered that day.

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)
to the Hippy Chee (a veggie version with hummus, fresh greens, and other good stuff).
And one that seemed to particularly take off, the Bacon and BBQ Grippos Chee, with potato chips tucked inside.

In the soup realm, T+C offered a cold, zesty chunky gazpacho throughout the summer.
And they continue to add soups to their repertoire (the idea being, they tell me, that T+C soups will always feature either tomato or cheese). As a serious soup lover, I think their soups just keep getting better. So good, in fact, that I’d be happy to try anything they offer, even if it didn’t include tomatoes or cheese (not that I’m encouraging you to stray from your concept, guys).

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"?).
I also tried this black bean soup on the Square one day this fall, and while I couldn’t detect obvious tomato or cheese, it continued the streak of T+C soups being full of flavor.
The pumpkin cheese soup T+C made for the Mt. Washington Pumpkin Chuck was a great innovation, perfect for the occasion.
And speaking of being fit for an occasion, T+C's beer-cheese soup (served with pretzels, and originally offered for one of those Cincinnati old-German-town beer fests) is superbly satisfying - and such a hit that it made its way into Tom + Chee's opening week rotation on Court Street.

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.
When I finally made my way to Court Street on Friday of T+C’s opening week, I was delighted to see it packed with seated patrons, as well as others, like me, happy for carry-out.
And I’m loving the expanded menu! T+C’s blackboard menu includes a whole section of variations on the popular Grippo’s potato chip-filled grilled cheese (second column from the left), including one I’ll have to try next time, the Italian, with vinegar Grippo’s.

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.)
I was delighted to find gouda added to T+C's cheese array with this mushroom soup. (I'm still bummed that the one time during the summer they offered artisanal cheese from nearby Capriole, they were sold out by the time I arrived at their booth at noon.) Perhaps more cheeses will be added once they figure out what flies with their new Court Street clientele?

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."


Anonymous said...

Looks like a fine place. The bacon-chip grilled cheese is brilliant and I'll be copying it.

Jenny said...

Grilled cheese and tomato soup is what I served for lunch on Thanksgiving to keep my guests happy until dinner. It's the ultimate comfort food and I love seeing all of the variations; the Hippie Chee made me happy. Do they really have Hippies in Ohio? :-)

I also love seeing a small business open and hopefully continue to prosper. Good for them.

Aunty Belle said...


I luv yore own zeal for the local--includin' support for T&C.

These folks have done an incredible job wif' a small stand-by set up an ole' favorite food. IMPRESSIVE.

Cannot wait to try some of these--an whata very very fine job ya done writing about it an' the pics is great too.

Sharon Rudd said...

Troll, thanks for stopping by! By all means, try away. I've heard of eateries in other cities offering chips *inside* a sandwich, so I don't think T+C originated the concept. However, it's all in the execution, baby :)

Boxer, love it that you kept your Thanksgiving guests satisfied until dinner with grilled cheese and tomato soup - great idea! And yes, we do have hippies in Ohio. Although probably more in other parts of the state than Cincinnati, and probably fewer than than around your Seattle stomping grounds.

Aunty, why, thankie for yore compliments. Yep, I do love to support the locals - especially when they're doing such a great job following their dreams!

Joanne said...

Mmm I would LOVE to live near a place like this! Sounds super delicious.

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

Fabulous photos. How fabulous to live nearby. I'd like the gooey grilled cheese please.

Jen said...

Oh yes, it's all in the execution! I'm looking forward to trying their take on soup & sandwich!

chickory said...

man oh man i love everything you featured. I wish there was one here - in this little town it would KILL> great review too eggy! i really like the small scale of it -you can really control quality. and its homey - comforting. loved it.

moi said...

an inside-out glazed donut grilled cheese sandwich

Be still my heart, that something such as this exists in the universe.

Shaheen said...

Love how you introduced us to the Tom and Chee and its new home now. It certainly looks like a place i would frequent for my lunches. I am so liking the look of the soups: black bean; pumpkin (MMMMM) and gooey oozing cheese sounds just so comforting. This reminds me, chips in bread is one of my guilty pleasures.

Have a good weekend.

Unknown said...

I love this, I am hopeing to team up with them to open a location in Oklahoma city. I have wanted my own bussiness for a while. I can't wait to talk to them about it.