Published February 09. 2012 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 11:00AM
We're all used to seeing campaigns waged against hot-button issues on billboards across the country. Smoking. Drugs. Guns. But perhaps the most disturbing campaign recently surfaced in Albany, N.Y.: a campaign against cheese.
The billboards feature close-ups of obese body parts, along with messages like "Your thighs on cheese" and "Your abs on cheese." According to NPR's food blog, The Salt, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine - the organization behind the ads - says cheese and other dairy products are the leading source of saturated fat for kids today.
Their message definitely had an impact, but not in that it scared me away from eating cheese. Rather, it left me to contemplate this: What if their campaign was successful? What if we had to live in a world without cheese? What cheesy food would you miss the most? Pizza? Burritos? Melted Brie?
For me, the answer is easy. It's a very special kind of cheese, featured on the Food Network's "Best Thing I Ever Ate" cheese edition. I was lucky enough to grow up eating it every so often. Happily, it's still within driving distance: the crispy cheese at Shady Glen, a 1950s-style diner in Manchester.
Shady Glen has two locations, the original (near the Bolton town line) having opened in 1948, after John and Bernice Rieg wanted to expand their farm into making and selling ice cream. The Parkade shopping mall restaurant opened in 1965, and it seems to have barely changed at all.
Waitresses wear green polyester uniforms with white aprons, and waiters and cooks don paper hats. Seating options are booths or stools at a counter that winds around the food preparation area in the middle of the restaurant and allows wait staff easy access to the tables. The only menu is on a black-and-white letter board on the wall, which also displays the diner's main artwork. The mural is supposed to be a whimsical scene, I suppose, with elves playing among mushrooms in a glen and on a beach, finding a treasure chest of ice cream sundaes and cheeseburgers. But I've always found these green, curly-toed elves with V-shaped unibrows to be a bit creepy, and I try to avoid facing them.
The seat-yourself system means there's sometimes a wait, but service is quick, and at lunch on a Saturday, our wait was short. Servers immediately dole out little Dixie cups of water and get to your order. The menu has some options that don't include cheese - like shrimp, steak, cod, chicken and tuna salad - but why bother when there's cheese?
So you know how when you're making a grilled cheese and some of it spills out a little onto the pan so the edges get crispy? Well, Shady Glen does that with an entire piece of cheese. So if you just want a side of cheese (which we did) for $1.95 you can get four pieces of orange-colored cheese on a plate, fried to a crisp. The bottom, which had adhered to the grill, is smooth and golden brown, while the top is beaded from bubbling on the grill and still a tiny bit gooey. This is undoubtedly the best way to experience a piece of plain, old-fashioned American cheese.
But if you want a real meal, get it on the cheeseburger, ($5.75). The burger itself is good, but very basic, small and grilled on a white bun. But the cheese on it melts between the burger and bun and extends in four large crispy corners. The main dilemma is whether to break off the corners and eat them by themselves or fold them into the burger for extra cheesiness and crunch. You can also add your own condiments (ketchup, yellow mustard, onions and relish).
We also tried the cheesefurter ($4.10). The hot dog is also straightforward grilled fare that probably could have been browned a bit more. It also features the mix of melted and crispy cheese but is a little light on the crispy part. Getting the grilled cheese ($3.35) with crispy cheese and bacon seemed like a good idea (so, really, a crispy cheese sandwich), but it wasn't melted into the bread and therefore was too dry.
You can get most of these as part of a platter, with fries and coleslaw, but the fries are crinkle-cut and don't have much flavor. The onion rings ($3.30), however, are thick and crunchy. The saltiness is perfectly complemented by a sweet milkshake.
Their homemade ice cream is definitely worth saving room for - or you can buy a gallon to take home. They have seasonal flavors like pumpkin in the fall and eggnog in the winter. Served in a metal dish on a white doily, the chocolate almond joy and chocolate caramel crunch were both rich and creamy, with the ingredients distributed in small bits, so you get them all in each bite.
Shady Glen, as I remembered, lived up to my cheese expectations, as long as you stick with the basics. Try it now, just in case the cheese-haters win.