What do you mean, I have to eat the sides, too?!”

You have to eat the sides, too.

My man Eliot and I were in Ely, Minnesota, four miles from the edge of the world. This was last April. I had just gone face-to-crust with The Mutt, a castle-sized sandwich they offer at Gator’s Grilled Cheese Emporium. Have you seen this thing? The top bun is a grilled cheese sandwich. The bottom bun is another grilled cheese sandwich, but with macaroni and bacon inside. In between the two sandwiches are ham, turkey, prime rib, and a fried egg. My stomach had just enough open space for it that day, but one more bite – or even poorly-timed inhalation of air – and I might have hurled it all back onto the table.

And that was exactly my problem: you have to eat the sides, too.

Chef Vera Olson broke me the news, with not quite the severity a blackjack dealer would explain that, yes, you had bet your house on that last hand; yes, you did just lose; and yes, that does mean your house is now the house’s house. I looked at my three untouched side dishes like “Shoot, really?”

The tomato soup is spiced, robust, the real stuff, not the canned stuff – and exactly the stuff that would hit the back of my throat and pull the fire alarm prank on my gag reflexes if I tried any right then and there. A bowl of panko-crusted macaroni and cheese, caked in cheese sauce. Have you ever tried to chew a noodle with no extra room in your stomach? If I don’t make it onto St. Peter’s good list, that’s probably how I’m spending my afterlife. And the home-cut potatoes? The most adorable, delectable anvils.

Eliot tried, too. He finished his sandwich and ate his potatoes, but got no further. He considered it good fun, a jolly affair. He didn’t consider this a crushing, abject failure that would haunt him for an entire 200-mile drive home, then continue doing so off and on for another nine months. He probably never once questioned the value of his existence. He just looked at me and said, “We’ll have to come back next time you visit.”

So, we did.

What was your generation’s version of grilled cheese and tomato soup dinners? For mine, it was macaroni and hot dogs. Today, sadly, it might be a Happy Meal. But at least Happy Meals keep for six years.

Olson and the team at Gator’s are doing everything they can to bring the comfort food of days past and re-staple them to the present. Gator’s runs the grilled cheese and tomato soup all year long. During the summer months, special sandwiches and soups rotate through the menu. Daily special macaroni varieties include pizza mac, lobster mac, a spicy queso mac, and a play on the tuna casserole Olson enjoyed as a child – topped with crushed potato chips and all.

They even offer a healthy spin on the happy meal: an entree, apple sauce, a juice box, and a Frisbee for $5.95. It might not keep for six years, but I think you’ll be happy regardless. You can see the entire menu on their website.

The restaurant is named after a dog the owners had, a Shetland Sheepdog they adopted from an area rescue. The Mutt rides the same wave – every ingredient from every other sandwich they sell is plopped on the Mutt – and a dollar from every Mutt sold benefits the Cook County Humane Society.

Gator’s opened in 2015 on Sheridan St. Six blocks down Sheridan, Ely’s Main Street gives way to forest. One last town sits about four miles up the highway. After that, you’re gone. You can actually stand in the middle of Sheridan, if standing in the middle of streets if your thing, and see exactly what kind of cover you can expect in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

It looks massive and deep, because it very much is. The Growler wrote a great piece last year about Dorothy Molter, a root beer-maker and the last legal resident of the Boundary Waters. Legal. I wonder how many people are living out there now. I’d bet you could hide forever out there if you wanted to badly enough, and I have to admit: the thought of it is tempting sometimes. There’s got to be at least one more out there someplace.

On the day I sought my revenge, temperatures in Ely hovered around -10 Fahrenheit. It wasn’t the best day to be cruising 70 miles from Hibbing to Ely in a car without running heat, but there’s a place for the people who can’t handle that. It’s called “the south.”

We pulled up in front of Gator’s, I stood in the middle of the street for a minute, and we stepped inside. We grabbed seats by the fireplace. We needed them. We were given menus, which we did not need.

I remembered how big The Mutt was, and how big the sides were. I’d had nothing but a cup of coffee that day. As ready as a person could be for eating a sandwich, I was absolutely that ready. When our Mutts were set down, I posed for some pictures and took a few of my own. I flashed a couple of really nice smiles, then set about making a most gruesome aftermath.

I didn’t eat the tomato soup. I picked up the soup and chugged it the way I chug protein shakes in the morning. I scraped potato cuts together four or five at a time, stabbed and devoured. Crispy, earthy, steamy, obliterated. The macaroni sat beautifully in its little cup; it was ravaged in seconds. I took my head of steam and rammed into the sandwich. Half of it, poof! 

This was all done in roughly five minutes’ time. I let loose a nice, big burp and felt a new pocket of space open up. That was when I knew I had won.

I picked apart the last half of the sandwich, chatted and ate. I checked out the train track, situated on brackets up near the ceiling. It circles the whole inside. There’s even a little bridge right above the front door. I ate the “top bun” the way I would a casual meal. I’m pretty sure the train runs occasionally, but I didn’t see it.

Eliot was putting on a good show, but he was talking as if revenge wasn’t his priority. Huh? The meat was shredded, and a little bit dry.  I would suggest saving some soup for this phase, or asking for some sauce on the side. Eliot said he’d rather be comfortable now, and have leftovers later. How irrational, man. I squished those bunches of meat together and shoveled them into my mouth. Anything that fell off the fork, I picked up by hand and dropped into my mouth.

It’s an altogether wonderful sandwich.  It’s a worthy challenge, but it would also make a great Valentine’s Day dinner to share  – as Olson says people have done.

They’ve got really nice water at Gator’s, too. It’s like that all over the region. Really nice tap water up there. We could pretty much feel our feet again. I ate the “bottom bun” by hand, but picked up my fork so I could drop it dramatically. Done!

We finished our glasses of water and headed back out to the car.

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