Back when I used to wear dry-cleaned clothes to eke out a living in a downtown office building, there was precious little to eat in the neighborhood at lunchtime. When the weather was nice, the suit-clad masses trudged down Church Street to Sylvia Ganier's bygone and beloved Cibo, for creamy tomato-basil soup and coconut cake. Or we'd grab a spot on the patio of Provence at the library. On rainy days, we went underground to a basement deli, for a pay-by-the-pound salad bar and Rice Krispie treats. So, if the Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Co. of Nashville had arrived at the corner of Fourth and Commerce back then, I can tell you where I would have been three out of five days a week around noon.
Nestled in a hole in the wall that formerly housed a bare-bones market and the short-lived and unfortunately spelled Krayp Kafé, the GCCCCN (OK, that's not really its nickname), makes efficient use of limited square footage, squeezing more seats and more menu items — and in our experience, more customers — into the snug space than you might think possible.
Restaurant veterans Marion and Joseph Buondonno developed the concept in New Jersey and relocated last summer. If you want the full story, look on the bulletin board above the short lunch counter. A two-page typed letter from Marion, in response to a disgruntled customer, tells the tale. The Buondonnos brought their five kids under 12 years old to Nashville in search of a "better life than N.J." The kids all help out in the store and are home-schooled by their mom. According to Marion's spirited rebuttal, "My 11-year-old can run a POS system. ... My 10-year-old can go up against anyone at a fry station. ... My 8-year-old knows every recipe by heart. ..."
The most important recipe at this tiny vibrant red-and-white lunchroom-slash-take-out stand is the formula for the eponymous seafood patty. Long on crab, with a hint of mayonnaise and a light dusting of breadcrumb, the Company's crab cakes are available plain (cooked and uncooked, for takeout) and on sandwiches and salads. In our experience, the headliner was the crab melt, a massive but manageable sandwich of golden brown Texas toast piled with crisp lettuce, sliced tomato and melted Monterey Jack cheese. The bountiful and bulky layers of this handheld meal compressed into balanced bites of warm and cool temperatures and crisp and creamy textures.
The shrimp po'boy on a grilled baguette is also a generous meal-sized sandwich, but the flattened shrimp were less appealing than the plump disk of crab cake.
For a smaller soupçon of the crab cake, try an order of crab balls. The hush puppy-sized globes have a thicker fried crust than the larger cakes, and a serving of four makes a good item for sharing while you're waiting for your name to be called to collect the rest of your order.
And wait you will. The Buondonnos all but celebrate the delay, because it proves that someone is back there behind the counter making your sandwich to order. (See Marion's letter again.) So settle in and listen to the kitsch soundtrack of oldies. When your grilled cheese arrives, you'll understand what took so long. Anyone who has ever stood — with spatula raised expectantly — over a flat top griddle or a frying pan, waiting for cheese to melt, will get it. The amount of white American cheese draped on these sandwiches can take a while to reach the critical state of ooze; furthermore, you can't get this grill-kissed sandy-blond patina in a microwave. In short, it's worth the wait.
Grilled cheese sandwiches demand tomato soup, and while the GCCCCN's version is no stand-in for Cibo's exquisite (and extinct) chunky tomato-basil, it is a ringer for the pale-pink purée that Mom ladled for lunch when you came in from playing in the snow.
For downtown lunchers looking for something a little lighter than the fried fare, a refrigerator case holds an array of salads that can be topped with shrimp, tuna salad, grilled chicken and, of course, crab cakes. From that grab-and-go selection, we enjoyed the cold peel-and-eat shrimp dusted with spices, which left us licking our fingers and grateful we hadn't taken the plastic clamshell of messy seafood back to work to eat at a desk.
Not everything on the menu smacks of the homemade goodness of the crab cakes. In fact, when we asked one of the young Buondonnos, who was busy hand-rolling crab balls in breadcrumbs, if the coconut shrimp and potato string-wrapped shrimp "sammies" were also hand-breaded, we got a sheepish shake of the head. Then again, you weren't going to landlocked downtown Nashville for fresh ocean fare, were you? You were looking for a well-priced and comforting lunch to break up a drab workday. The Buondonnos deliver that experience. What's more, it's oozing with melting cheese.
The Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Co. of Nashville is open Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Trays of sandwiches and other items are available with 24-hour notice.
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