When we think of comfort food, we envision a favorite meal from childhood. A simple dish, that instantly brings us right back to Mom’s kitchen, surrounding us with warm and fuzzy visions of family. It’s in the meal’s simplicity that the real genius lies.
It was with that in mind that East Islip native, Anthony Leis Jr., decided to go into the restaurant business. As the proud owner of AJ’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese Shop in Bay Shore, Leis focuses on giving people what they want—a modernized version of America’s favorite comfort sandwich.
I sat down with Leis on a recent Saturday morning to discuss when we should come in to eat and how to make a perfect grilled cheese at home.
Long Island Pulse: You just opened your first brick-and-mortar restaurant. How did you get here?
Anthony Leis: I started out catering first with my brother, my dad, my fiancée, my sister…the whole family really. But I worked in restaurants all throughout college and I just really liked quick service type restaurants. I always enjoyed the energy and I always wanted to own my own business.
Pulse: Out of all of the quick service type restaurants you could start, why grilled cheese?
Leis: I saw that grilled cheese was really trending on the East Coast, saw a few shops in the city that were doing it well, and I really liked the idea.
I like that you can be so creative with it. There are endless possibilities. You can do specials all the time and always change the menu. Our soups change daily, but we’re also going to have a Monthly Sandwich Special.
Pulse: Why did you open up shop in Bay Shore?
Leis: It’s really popular right now and there are a lot of new restaurants opening up. I grew up in East Islip, but whenever I wanted to get something to eat, I always came to Bay Shore. I wanted my restaurant to be a part of that.
Pulse: On Opening Day, I had the Veggie Melt, my husband had the Buffalo Chicken, and our kids had the Traditional. Did any of us pick your most popular item on the menu?
Leis: [Laughs.] Ummm, nope. The most popular one is The Southern. It’s pulled pork [or chicken] smothered in barbecue sauce with melted cheddar. The Apple Bacon one is also really popular. It’s sliced apples, bacon and melted cheddar.
Pulse: The Secret Sauce…where did it come from?
Leis: Honestly, it was an experiment. I was by myself and I just decided to mix up a couple of different things. It’s a ranch base and I added onto that.
Pulse: What possessed you to dip homemade potato chips into the secret sauce anyways?
Leis: I think a few family members actually started dipping them in it and were like, “Oh, wow— this is good!” It took off from there.
Leis: Hmmm. Let’s see…
- Low heat. If you do a really hot pan, your bread will burn first and your cheese won’t melt on the inside.
- Use a sandwich press. A press will help your grilled cheese cook more evenly than a traditional pan because both sides heat up at once.
- Watch the butter. You don’t need a lot of butter. Actually, go very light on the butter.
- Use good bread. For a really good grilled cheese, use dense bread–like sourdough–that will hold up well.
Pulse: It must be tricky to help grilled cheese travel well for your take out orders. How did you select the type of material used in the packaging of your containers?
Leis: Yeah. Throughout the whole process, we spent a lot of time testing out different packaging to find out which material would work best. We tried Styrofoam, but that didn’t work because of the moisture—and I just don’t like Styrofoam anyway. But plastic held the moisture too, so that didn’t work. Then we tried cardboard and it worked. It absorbed the grease and the added ventilation really helps out.
Pulse: So, it’s been packed. From what I’ve seen‑it’s really standing room only on the weekends. So when is the best time to come in for a bite to eat and land a coveted seat at a table?
Leis: During the week, I’d say it’s most quiet from 11am–Noon and then again from 2:30pm-4pm.
And well the seating, we’re working on that. We have someone that is custom fabricating a very rustic, bar top seating‑almost like a split log design‑that will go all along the window fronts. It’ll probably fit another 8-10 bar type seats. Also in the summer, we’re planning on putting a few tables out front for additional seating.
Pulse: Were you surprised by your success on opening day? I mean the lines were out of the door and down the street…
Leis: I don’t know about surprised, but grateful. Yes, grateful.
Pulse: Speaking of being grateful, tell me something about this whole process that you haven’t told anyone else yet.
Leis: I would just like to thank my entire family for contributing to all of this. No one has mentioned the family aspect yet. But my brother, my sister. My fiancée—she left her job to come here. My parents. My brother’s girlfriend. Everyone really. Everyone is working here now —even my cousins. I mean, just everyone. Everyone’s pitching in and I just want to thank them.