The Southern comfort food blows up.
Mon Sep 20 2010
Photograph: Jolie Ruben
“The comfort food of the American South... The basic mixture includes grated cheddar or American cheese combined with mayonnaise, chopped canned pimientos, salt and pepper.”
—The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America
Pimento (or pimiento) cheese is so ubiquitous a sandwich spread south of the Mason-Dixon, it’s surprising it took so long to storm a city obsessed with stone-ground grits. But a century after its birth—food historians believe it first appeared in the early 1900s, when mild orange cheddar hit Southern grocery shelves—pimento cheese is finally finding a foothold in New York. Beyond the pickled sweet red peppers that give the spread its name, Northern and Southern cooks alike fiddle with the format, adding extra goodies like garlic, onion, olives, hot chilies, hard-boiled eggs or even cream cheese. The latter, along with chopped artichoke hearts and lemon salt, dresses up the creamy-chunky version at Tipsy Parson (156 Ninth Ave between 19th and 20th Sts, 212-620-4545), where you can find it slathered atop a burger ($17), served with house-made crackers ($12) and soon, battered and fried into bite-size fritters. Char No. 4 (196 Smith St between Baltic and Warren Sts, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn; 718-643-2106) takes a similar revisionist approach, deconstructing the snack into deep-fried crispy cheddar curds ($7), served with a side of spicy pimento mayo. While poblanos replace pimientos at gastrodive The Commodore (366 Metropolitan Ave at Havemeyer St, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-218-7632), the presentation is more classic: The mayo-heavy mix in its $6 “adult cheese” sandwich becomes an awesomely gooey mess when griddled between slices of buttered white bread. But if these pimento purveyors have heightened the humble spread (or at least its base ingredients), the Filipino version—called “cheese pimientos” and available by the tub at Phil-Am Food (7002 Roosevelt Ave at 70th St, Woodside, Queens; 718-899-1797)—is classically junky. The stuff is super-sweet and Day-Glo orange, made with cheddar so mild it might as well be American. It’s the perfect reminder of exactly what we love about pimento cheese, a Southern treat that’s not afraid to embrace its lowbrow roots.