Considering the fact that the restaurant space is roughly the size of a dorm room (with a kitchen no bigger than a closet), Earl’s Beer & Cheese has been turning out truly fantastic eats since its debut early this year. The clamorous little spot, located on the border of Manhattan's Upper East Side and East Harlem, has a vibe that’s half-bar and half-hunting lodge (complete with a deer-filled mural on one wall). Earl's is perpetually filled with about three times the amount of people than can comfortably occupy the 200 square feet of space, so patrons must always be ready to fight for a coveted spot at the communal dining table, not to mention a mug of whichever four craft beers are on tap for the day.
But there’s surely reason to put up with the discomfort. Helmed by chef Corey Cova (a veteran of David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar), the kitchen turns out the kind of dishes that would border on the ridiculous if they didn’t satisfy on such a primal level. Fried, gummy Asian rice balls mixed with spicy ground beef are sold as gnocchi, and toasted bread is topped with beer cheese — a boozy, Cheddar-based spread that is slathered on with wild abandon. Most provocative of all is the fancy waffle, a toasted Eggo topped with slices of Cheddar, a generous portion of foie gras, coffee-cured bacon, and a sticky, syrupy sauce. It’s the kind of food you'd imagine a gourmet chef would make for themself upon stumbling home, half-drunk, at 3 a.m.
Now for the sandwich. The dish may be less ostentatious than some of the other menu items, but it's the N.Y. state Cheddar grilled cheese that’s really worth coming back for. On paper the sandwich sounds relatively straightforward — toasted sourdough bread, grated Cheddar, kimchi, a fried egg, and pork belly. What the menu description doesn’t convey, though, is just how crispy yet mouth-meltingly tender the pork belly is, how the egg yolk, once broken, coats everything in molten ooze, how the cold bite of the kimchi both cuts through the fat and also joins all the ingredients together in spicy matrimony. This is a sandwich that comes out of the broiler with a touch of char around the edges, sloppy and threatening to burst over the accompanying basket of ruffled potato chips with every bite. This sandwich is pure raunch.
While the N.Y. state Cheddar is perfectly good washed down with a cold one (this food was designed, after all, with beer-drinking in mind), it feels almost superfluous to consume it with anything else. The saltiness, the crispness, the sweetness, the spice, the fat, the char — there is no other sandwich I’ve enjoyed more.