How to Make a Patty Melt, The Glorious Lovechild of Burger and Grilled Cheese
Chef Craig Koketsu of Quality Branded restaurants shares his recipe for an iconic LA diner dish
Utilizing a machine invented by Iowa man Otto Rohwedder, the first loaves of automatically sliced bread were produced in Missouri during the summer of 1928. Less than three decades later in the 1950s, Los Angeles restaurateur Tiny Naylor had the bright idea of pairing some of that sliced bread with ground beef, cheese and grilled onions to create a sandwich he could put on the menu at his drive-in on Sunset and La Brea in L.A. Thus, the patty melt was born.
Though he is now a New Yorker, chef Craig Koketsu of Quality Branded restaurants in NYC grew up in San Jose and, fittingly, his first run-in with a patty melt came at another now-defunct SoCal establishment: Bergmann’s Department Store.
“The store had a cafe where both my older sisters ended up being waitresses and one of them was a cook there,” Koketsu tells InsideHook. “Occasionally, after my swimming lessons, my mom would stop there and we’d go for lunch. That was my first experience with the patty melt. I didn’t have a very discerning palate at the time, but it made a big taste memory that has always stuck with me. It wasn’t like I was obsessed with patty melts throughout my life, but when I go to diners, it’s a food I always order. It’s an indicator of how good that diner is, in my opinion. It is something that most places can execute pretty well and simply.”
Koketsu, who was named one of the city’s best up-and-coming chefs by New York Magazine in 2007, eventually put his take on the sandwich on the menu at Quality Eats following a week of testing out different ingredients and serving styles.
“When we opened Quality Eats, I knew I wanted to have a patty melt,” Koketsu says. “It brings me back. The food you have when you’re growing up, especially the first time you have certain things, really makes an impression on you. Those things stick with you and become archetypes in your mind that factor into how you conceive things. That played a big part. Tastes memories still figure largely into how I make dishes. I think we’re always trying to get back to that first, ideal version of a food.”
Relying on that early memory but also wanting to differentiate his version from the standard patty melt, Koketsu decided to incorporate some features from another classic diner item: the club sandwich.
“I played around with different ideas for the patty melt, but it’s hard to make them unique or special,” he says. “The club sandwich idea came in because it is another one of those items you can find in any diner. So that popped into my head: the idea of making a double-decker sandwich patty melt. Initially, I tried rye bread because I wanted it to be like the classic, but it was actually a little boring. Sourdough toasts up really well, but it’s also hearty enough to stand up to the three layers. The coleslaw we serve it with is also what really completes the dish and keeps it from being too heavy on its own. It gives you freshness, acidity, some heat and a little sweetness too. So, I opted for sourdough, coleslaw and then put BBQ sauce on the onions. That pulled everything together. That was the evolution of the dish.”
As with good jazz, it isn’t the individual notes that make the sandwich sing, but the contrast between them.
“The patty melt is like a grilled cheese with a burger inside,” Koketsu says. “With a good grilled cheese, you’re looking for a crispy, crunchy exterior, but then gooey, melted cheese when you bite into it. For a really good grilled cheese, you only toast the bread on the outside because you want the inside to be nice and soft. That textural contrast is key. We actually toast both sides of the bread because we’re doing this in multiple layers. So, that contrast goes throughout all the layers. Otherwise, it can mush out. A patty melt is bread, meat, onions and cheese. Because it has so few ingredients, everything needs to be right.”
To ensure that’s just how yours turns out, the recipe for Koketsu’s patty melt is below.
Quality Eats’ Patty Melt Club
- 6 slices sourdough Pullman
- 4 quarter-pound hamburger patties
- 8 slices American cheese
- ½ cup caramelized onions
- ¼ cup BBQ sauce
- Softened butter
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Bodega Sauce (see recipe below)
- Combine caramelized onions and BBQ sauce and warm gently in a small saucepot.
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Butter bread slices on both sides. Brown bread in the skillet on both sides and then place on a baking sheet.
- Return skillet to high heat. Season hamburger patties with salt and pepper and cook in skillet until nicely browned, about three minutes on each side. Turn off heat. Top each burger with two slices of American cheese and cover skillet.
- Divide caramelized onions equally over four slices of bread. Top onions with a generous dollop of Bodega Sauce.
- Place patties on top of the Bodega Sauce. Stack one set of bread/onions/burger on top of another and top with the plain slice of toast.
- Cut in half diagonally into large triangles and then cut those triangles in half. Serve with coleslaw.
Ingredients for the Bodega Sauce
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- ¼ cup ketchup
- 2 tablespoons sriracha
- 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce
- Mix ingredients together well. Keep refrigerated.
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