Every April is Grilled Cheese Month. It’s a silly little celebratory month where people who are fans of the bread and cheese treat get to go balls to the walls in indulgence, grabbing nice versions of the sandwich from The Oaks Gourmet to Campanile to Clementine, all culminating in the grand hurrah of Los Angeles grilled cheese, The Grilled Cheese Invitational.
I had been looking forward to this moment for years. I remember when I discovered Grilled Cheese Month in 2009 and was stoked for the opportunity to try so much good food (AKA, good takes on grilled cheese). I did my research and found various specials but, because I was still new to the city and had very little friends, I didn’t end up going to any of the festivities that year, the year after that, or the year after that. The Invitational was always on my list, at the top, because it seemed like such a fun way to try out so many local versions of the sandwich. As soon as tickets went up at the beginning of April, I lept to grab them and shared them on the website and even ensured we were judges. I blocked our schedule for April 28, 2012, a day we would devote to eating and critiquing the grilled cheeses of Los Angeles.
We got to the Rose Bowl at 2PM, two hours after all the festivities had begun. We dealt with some traffic and parking confusion as a result of lots of youth soccer leagues going head to head on the field where you usually park for the Rose Bowl Flea Market. We found a decent parking spot and proceeded to try to figure out how to get in, passing everything from parents of soccer players day drinking by RVs to groups of people standing with Ron Paul 2012 signs. We approached the entrance, where a tour bus of sorts was parked with lots of weird looking people in various forms of undress packing instruments into the vehicle. The entrance had the Will Call area and an area for you to purchase tickets, which I didn’t think was possible after reading so many “YOU MUST BY TICKETS IN ADVANCE!!!” warnings. Bobby grabbed cash on a hunch that we would need it and I made my way to show our ticket QR Codes to a man with a weird goatee and a khaki kilt on.
The kilted man scanned us in to discover we were judges and then proceeded to yell “JUDGES!!!” at a woman who then gave us nice little starred wristbands. “Okay: so what do we do with these?” I asked, very confused as to what judging meant. “Just go in and they’ll tell you what to do,” Kilt said. We nodded and walked off, noting just how many volunteers that were there, all of them in weird grilled cheese fandom outfits on. This is when some switch was turned on in my brain: who are all these people? It takes some severe love of grilled cheese to get you out of bed and at the Rose Bowl on a Saturday to help people into a large fenced parking area to eat grilled cheese and wait in long lines. It was a mix of confusion quickly followed by the thought, “Oh, dear: what did we get ourselves into?”
As we walked over a bridge into the facility we stopped next to a pickle stand to take it in: it was just a parking lot of a bunch of people going from food truck to food truck and other areas getting food. There was loud, “Please turn it down!!” music playing and no one directing judges to judging areas or wherever despite there seeming to be a lot of people who were working the event. We kept walking and eventually approached a little corner of the Invitational with a stage and trophies, flanked by lots of people making grilled cheeses and people watching them from behind a fence. We looked around for the judges entrance, sure that we would be bypassing the people hunched over the fence to get some special treatment and a chance to judge.
Alas: not the case. When you “enter the judges area,” you become one of those people hunched over the fence. All you do in there is try to get the various cooks’ attention so that they can have a helper hand you a sandwich. That’s it. So. That means that you:
A.) Don’t get to try all of the competitors’ sandwiches;
B.) You have to earn the right to be able to eat one of their sandwiches;
C.) You don’t get to judge.
You can’t believe how disappointed we were. Yes, I understand that it’s a “part of the experience,” cat calling cheese hat wearing chefs for a bite. However, finding this out after only being awake for two hours, hungry, $57 short from buying tickets, and a little hungover was not very exciting. I was super bummed. Thus, we left the judging area after ten minutes of dealing with it and then went on to head to a food truck or something to get a bite. The entire parking area was lined with trucks from Pie & Burger to The Grilled Cheese Truck to Campanile to more: there was every type of grilled cheese for Invitational goers to try.
At this point, we’d given up on our judging dreams and realized we would now have to just pay for grilled cheeses and deal with it. Oh well! Of course, the lines for all the big food trucks were absurdly long, people undoubtedly in line for at least an hour. We skipped past the mind boggling long lines for The Grilled Cheese Truck and Cool Haus and stopped into the small tent without a line for Campanile, us of a few handfuls of people that recognize that Mark Peel is a god. They were carrying their Classic Grilled Cheese, which sees onion and cheese partying together, and their Autostrada (we believe), which was Italian meats and peppers cuddling up together. These were the two we got, opting not to get the Burrata, despite it looking nice and rich They were a delight and $4 each, of course. The secret no one told us was to go to the Cabot Creamery stand as they were giving out *free* sandwiches. We found this out as we were leaving but should have known given the amount of people walking around with Cabot swag, not to mention Izze and Fuze swag as well. People will go to such great lengths for free stuff.
The only other sandwich we wanted to try was the one Beer Belly was offering, which was a standard grilled cheese covered in maple syrup, essentially French Grilled Cheese Toast. But, in order to get that sandwich, you had to wait in line to get a 21+ wristband as it was in the biergarten. This wasn’t a big deal; however, the wristband distributor was an older gentleman prone to hand cramps, which made the process of getting in quite an ordeal. Anyway, it was $5 per beer, which was great because we got to try Golden Road’s Hefeweizen, something we’d been wanting to try for months. The beer was good, the sandwich was good, and around this time the thought, “Who are all these people?” popped into my head again because it became so apparent that these people were all just super huge fans of grilled cheese–and that’s about it.
Kilt came back into my head as there were at least ten people I had encountered at that point in kilts. There was a woman with a parasol walking around in a Victorian dress the color of Velveeta. There was a guy dressed as a Ghostbuster but covered in cheese instead of ectoplasm, his sheepish little girlfriend carrying his beer, showing support by letting him have his cheesy moment to shine. There was a woman dressed as a rockabilly cheese Wonder Woman. There was a man–an adult, Dad, maybe Grandpa type of man–wearing pink tights and a Judy Jetson skirt, a small shirt, a hat, and a mouse nose/mouth. There were tons of people in shades of orange hanging out in groups and even girls wearing hats that resembled cheese boards. We were very out of place but did discover what the Grilled Cheese Invitational is in relationship to the Los Angeles food scene: it is the Renaissance Fair of food events and food culture, a celebration around a food item so entrenched in fandom and glee that it could not be contained in a month but needed a Comic-Con like event for people to wave their cheese covered fan flag.
At this realization and at the start of the Cheese Calling Contest, the sound of a grown man yelling “ASIAGOOoOOOooOo” to the point of falsetto told us that it was time to go home, after a little over an hour of checking out the cheese and wanting to help decide who makes the best grilled cheese in Southern California. We left, passing more kilted people and weaving through lines, glad we got to experience the tenth Invitational, checking off the event from our Los Angeles To Do List, wholly satisfied with the experience and content with the orange world we had entered this past Saturday.