Red Robin is primarily a vendor of hamburgers, with a selection of chicken sandwiches that appear to be more or less hamburgers with chicken breasts swapped in for the beef patty. But the menu also boasts the “All-American Patty Melt,” and that was what I went with. The patty melt is a sandwich with history but without glamour, which leads to it getting something of a short shrift. It’s easy to just figure it’s a hamburger on toast, or a cheeseburger with a patty in the middle, but that sells the whole thing short. I don’t mean to make too much of it, obviously it’s not a sandwich of electrifying genius, but it is a mid-century American classic. (Californian classic, to be precise. Tiny Naylor put it together at his coffee shop sometime in the 40s or 50s, at the corner of La Brea & Sunset that now houses an El Pollo Loco.) It’s a simple but complete sandwich: Patty, thousand island dressing, sauteed onions, and cheese (preferably swiss) on marbled rye. Red Robin’s version was exactly that, with no re-imagining or unnecessary deconstructing.
Here’s something else that Red Robin’s All-American Patty Melt was: It was the item on the menu with the most calories. In a chain that will gussy up a hamburger with all manner of fried this and sauteed that, I got a chuckle out of the humble patty melt being the most substantial thing on the menu. When it arrived, though, I was a bit taken aback. Where did those 1400 calories go? It’s two slices of rye, two slices of swiss, a patty of not unreasonable size, a couple ounces of dressing and some onions. According to the nutritional information, it isn’t even grilled in butter, they use margarine. Similar to what I’ve found previously while Slummin’ It, there seems to be so much less present than the calorie count would indicate. So there’s some kind of mystery here, about what’s in the dressing or what kind of cheese they use or just what the fat ratio of the beef is. It’s a puzzler, one I haven’t quite figured out yet. Beyond just the simple math of it, the sandwich isn’t particularly rich or indulgent. For all of those calories, you don’t get a sense that you’re eating something especially decadent, or even especially good. It’s not really bad, but most of it is just sort of there. I don’t think that’s quite so damning as it can be in other contexts. With something like a hamburger, “good enough” is enough to sink things, because you likely walked past a better hamburger on your way to the one you’re eating. A patty melt, on the other hand, isn’t the most common offering. It’s far from inconceivable that you might find yourself craving a patty melt and find that Red Robin is your only real option. If that ends up being the case, I should say that this would hit the spot. I wouldn’t suggest that it be someone’s first patty melt, but it’s a sandwich that knows where to set its mark, and it hits that mark. In the end, there are a lot of things worse than a good-enough patty melt.