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Food trucks gone mild: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich & grilled cheese trucks stretch craze's limits

Monster PBJ, food truck, peanut butter and jelly
The hard-to-miss Monster PBJ truck Monster PBJ/Facebook
sandwich food truck Monster PBJ, menu
An order form/sandwich bag makes everything easy. Photo by Sarah Rufca
grilled cheese golden grill
The Market, with goat cheese, fried egg, tomato and arugula Photo by Sarah Rufca
sandwich food truck, peanut butter and jelly
A messy peanut butter, strawberry and jalapeño jam sandwich. Photo by Sarah Rufca
Monster PBJ, food truck, peanut butter and jelly
sandwich food truck Monster PBJ, menu
grilled cheese golden grill
sandwich food truck, peanut butter and jelly

From Filipino siopao to escargot to ceviche, there's virtually no food you can't find at a Houston food truck.

But that doesn't mean that every popular food is a truck idea waiting to happen — or does it? That's the kind of existential question I was presented with when Monster PBJ rolled into my neighborhood.

Like The Golden Grill, a truck that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches, Monster PBJ seemed to epitomize the inevitable dumbing-down of the concept, banking on food trucks being so popular that people will eat anything they sell — despite the fact that the central appeal of a peanut butter sandwich or a grilled cheese is that it's something you can easily make when you are too broke or too lazy to get anything more ambitious together.

 It's a simple, delicious indulgence that costs less than the average Starbucks order. 

I was, in fact, so annoyed by the concept that I had no choice but to try it.

First off, if anyone wants to know how to brand and market a food truck, look no further than Monster PBJ. In addition to running the most organized and useful food truck website that I have seen thus far, including menu specifics and a chronological list with maps of where to find the truck and when, the owners have also invested in a bright, eye-catching truck in an unusual color as well as an iPad register system that accepts credit cards and emails receipts.

The menu, while relatively simple, is similarly well thought out. Orders are made by filling out a sandwich form on a paper bag, including options for bread, three different nut butters and options for either local jam or fresh fruit, plus sweet options like honey, agave and Nutella.

My friend ordered the recommended combo of an off-menu jalapeño jam with strawberries and peanut butter, while I went sweeter, mixing cashew butter with sliced bananas and honey, with both grilled and served on white bread.

Despite the jam, her sandwich didn't really offer much heat, with the thick peanut butter flavor taking the lead, as peanut butter is wont to do. However, this was the first time I'd ever tasted cashew butter (sad but true) and it was a revelation — still rich and smooth, but lighter and more neutral than its peanut cousin. Combined with banana and a hint of honey on some rather fabulous, only slightly toasted white bread, it was a sweet delight halfway between a snack and a dessert. I loved it.

 It's smart. Offering a side of tomato bisque with goat cheese elevates it to genius. 

It helps that these sandwiches start at $3 for a junior size — that's one piece of bread, sliced in half. A half-sandwich makes the perfect snack (or the perfect meal for kids who will be drawn to the purple monster on the side of the truck). It's a simple, delicious indulgence that costs less than the average Starbucks order.

The Golden Grill, on the other hand, uses a simple grilled cheese as just a starting point for a more typical food truck menu. There's a menu of cheeses from American ($3.50) to goat cheese ($6) that customers can use to build their own sandwiches a la carte, as well as a list of specialties starting at $7 like a buffalo chicken sandwich and an Angus burger — grilled cheeses only in the sense that they are served on grilled bread and also contain cheese.

It's smart. Offering a side of tomato bisque with goat cheese elevates it to genius.

I went for the Micho, which is about as far from a typical grilled cheese as the menu gets, with sausage packed and smushed into a flat patty, plus grilled onions and peppers, mozzarella and tomato aioli on sourdough bread. While Golden Grill also gets the importance of serving great bread, my sandwich was only mediocre, with the sausage patty coming off as bland, an overbalance of the peppers and onions and the mozzarella virtually failing to register.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Market Sandwich was a grilled cheese taken to its most epic proportion, led by a strong helping of tangy goat cheese plus a fried egg (only ever-so-slightly runny), local tomato and arugula on a smooth (not grainy) whole wheat bread. Between the cheese and the egg, the predominant flavors were rich and satisfyingly fatty, with the sweet, juicy tomato and the arugula for balance.

There are some pretty awesome versions of grilled cheese around town (including on a couple other food trucks), but the Market is my current favorite.

What makes both Monster PBJ and Golden Grill work is that they know the limitations of their chosen concepts and have worked around them with smart packaging, fair pricing and high-end ingredients that expand — at least somewhat — on the basic premise.

It also helps that what they serve is pretty damn tasty.

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