Few pairings are as ubiquitous in the Western world as ham and cheese. The British began putting the two together at least as early as the 1700s, when, per The Larousse Gastronomique 1961, an Irish immigrant matched pig, Leicester cheese, and a sort of mayo on a roll and sold it to travelers. The French likely married the two sometime around the same era, though one of their most famous ham and cheese sandwich creations, the croque monsieur, a toasty combination traditionally involving gruyère or emmental, didn’t appear on menus until the early 20th century. It’s now fairly ubiquitous in French bars. In the States, ham and cheese is a lunch staple, and in the late 19th century, it — not hot dogs — went hand in hand with a day at the ballpark.
I have a friend who has devoted 10 years of lunchtimes to eating ham and cheese sandwiches at various establishments around this city, and he insists that one of the best is at La Maison du Croque Monsieur (17 East 13th Street, 212-675-2227), a bi-level sliver near Union Square devoted to global iterations of the ham and cheese sandwich.
This place, of course, makes a croque monsieur, called the Croque Mr Henry. For this sandwich, you get ham and bechamel, and you can choose your cheese from a list that includes the traditional gruyère, Belgian Chimay, English cheddar, pungent raclette, and rich comté. Comté, my friend pointed out, is an excellent choice — it soothes the salt of the ham, and it’s not as overpowering as the raclette. Melted into the establishment’s thick, crusty toast, it creates a decadent lunchtime feast. Next time, I’ll likely add an egg to create the Croque Mme Anais. But I will add my endorsement that this is an excellent ham and cheese.
La Maison du Croque Monsieur also serves variations on the croque, many of which are inspired by ham and cheese sandwiches from other cultures. Take the Mr Joaquin, a play on the Cuban. Any Cuban sandwich devotee will tell you that the traditional Cuban bread really makes that sandwich sing, and that’s not in play here. But regardless, it’s a nice compilation of roasted pork, pickles, mustard, and, of course, ham and cheese. You can also get your ham and cheese matched to pear, in the Mr Otto, and sausage, bacon, and egg, in the Mr Rupert.
While the restaurant looks a lot like a takeout counter, it stipulates that these are best eaten right away — best to take your sandwich to the hidden tables upstairs, or grab one of the stools in the entrance.