Inside the cheese truck, I am sweating like a wedge of parmesan in the sun – it’s just a quarter past twelve, but already, a line has formed outside. Caseus, the three-year-old bistro and fromagerie at 93 Whitney Avenue, officially owns the vehicle, but Jeff, a Caseus chef and self-identified “cheese truck dude,” calls it his “current baby.” Jeff’s helpers today are Krystle, whose favorite topping is guacamole, a new trainee named Raven, and me.
The four of us are packed so tightly that only I can reach the fridge, so they let me serve Perrier, Coke, and Diet Coke to customers. Krystle explains that the soda—in glass bottles, made with real sugar, not corn syrup—comes from Mexico. The sandwich du jour is a grass-fed beef patty, and today’s tomatoes hail from a farm in Washington, Connecticut. “I know the farmer,” says Jeff, who likes his ingredients to be as local as possible.
Besides four people and a fridge, the small van contains a grill (Jeff’s hands deftly feel out the hottest zones), a vat of tomato soup, a stack of sliced sourdough, coolers of vegetables, a prep surface for salad, and a big box of grated cheese: comte, cheddar, swiss, gruyere, gouda, and provolone. The walls are clean, shiny metal, and the skylight is propped open. Caseus found this specially outfitted vehicle through a Craigslist post from New Jersey.
When business is slow, customers take time to chat, usually to express happiness at stumbling upon the truck: “I was just walking by and I was like, wait, Caseus truck! Awesome.” When the line grows long, Krystle begins to yell orders—“Tomato!”—to Jeff, who stands just two feet from her and confirms, “Tomato!”
“The challenge of trying to hustle sandwiches as fast as possible”—Krystle pauses to confess—“is a lot of fun.”
Within minutes of each other, two young men ask us about The Challenge. To rise to The Challenge, customers must design a sandwich and down ten within an hour. Survivors win a t-shirt, naming rights, and free sandwiches for life. “If you don’t make it,” the truck’s menu cautions, “you must pay in full and you get nothing but full of cheese sandwiches.”
“Does it say without vomiting?” asks one curious customer. (It does.) “Don’t come overly hungry,” Raven warns. “Your stomach shrinks.” Another customer asks whether it is enough to add just one topping to the sandwich. “Yeah,” shouts Jeff from the grill, “but you don’t want to be that arugula guy.”
The man who came closest to meeting the challenge inhaled seven guacamole and onion cheese sandwiches before throwing in the napkin. Only one other person has attempted, and he topped out at only four. Will anyone ever succeed? “I hope so,” says Jeff. “Somebody has to.”
Caseus owner Jason Sobochinski and his brother, Tommy introduced the cheese truck in February. The truck brings publicity to the restaurant, but Jeff describes its main mission as bringing sandwiches to the masses. “Everybody,” he says, “loves grilled cheese. I see people smile because they eat grilled cheese. That makes me happy.”
Many Yalies are familiar with the truck’s Tuesday and Friday visits to York Street and its Wednesdays on Cross Campus. Other regular stops include Yale-New Haven Hospital on Thursdays and the Wooster Square Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. The truck also made an appearance at the September 10th Train concert in Trumbull, Connecticut. “It’s the first concert we’ve done,” Jeff says. That same weekend, the truck served customers at the Fall Festival and Green Expo in Edgerton Park.
The cheese truck may be going places, but at its heart will always remain a good grilled cheese sandwich. I ask Jeff for tips. “The trick is butter,” he replies, dipping a ladle into a Tupperware container and splashing it on the grill. One ounce per sandwich. “Let the bread swim in the butter.” Then, add cheese, “squish it together,” and fry. Perfect, every time.