Steve Novak, owner/chef of The Grilled Cheese & Crab Cake Co. on Laurel Drive in Somers Point, considers himself lucky to have had the chance to travel extensively at a very young age.
Born in Bethlehem, Pa., his dad worked in Europe and instilled the importance of traveling to experience other cultures to his children. The family lived in Spain for three years.
Since his dad’s friends also had children Novak’s age, they made some long-lasting friendships.
Novak and his brothers would spend the entire summer with their friends’ family in Spain and the following summer, their friends’ children would stay with Novak’s family in the United States.
It was an incredible experience. But certain things always stood out in Novak’s mind.
“The things I eat are really my best memories,” Novak says.
Even today, everywhere Novak goes he likes to taste things he has never had the chance to try before.
With his new, smaller menu in place, Novak is offering things that he has tasted but thinks that maybe others have not had the chance to try. Knowing that people are sometimes set in their ways when it comes to food, Novak has added some different things to his menu, believing that after one taste, his customers will be hooked.
Using great ingredients such as jumbo lump crab meat in his crab cakes and beef that is fresh — never frozen — and is hand-shaped into his famous burger are things he thinks sets his restaurant apart. Almost everything on Novak’s menu comes from the tiny kitchen in the back of his surf- and shore-inspired restaurant, famous for the table shaped like a crab and the crab cakes that are prepared fresh daily in several different forms.
The rest of the menu is pretty interesting, too.
Crabby bacon french fries ($6.99) are one of the top sellers.
“Probably our most popular appetizer,” Novak says. “It comes with our famous creamy crab soup over top, almost like a gravy fry, with a sprinkle of old bay and covered with crumbled bacon.”
Another popular app is fried pickles ($5.99) breaded with panko crumbs and a spicy ranch dipping sauce are breaded in house. Grilled mac and cheese ($3.99) is housemade right on the flattop grill rather than baked. A big scoop and a little butter gives it a golden brown color and a crispy crust, but made differently, such as many of the items at the Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Co.
The buffalo sauce and the bleu cheese dressing are both homemade on the chicken tenders (five/$6.99). Even the crab balls ($8.99) are homemade. Deep fried onions ($5.75) are beer battered in house and deep fried until a crispy treat. All the soups are homemade, such as the chicken pastina ($2.99 cup, $3.99 bowl).
“We like to use pastina noodles because it keeps the integrity of the soup intact,” Novak says.
That’s a reference to soggy pasta that sits in the broth in some kitchens for much too long.
Cream of tomato ($2.9 cup, $3.99 bowl) is made from fresh tomatoes that are pureed in the food processor then lightly creamed. Both soups can be packaged for takeout ($6.99 per quart). But the soup that Novak calls his “bill payer,” is their famous cream of crab ($4.35 cup, $5.75 bowl).
“It’s made daily and we go through what we make every day,” Novak says. “Sometimes we have to make it two or three times depending on the time of year.”
Angry cream of crab ($5.35 cup, $6.75 bowl) is one of a number of menu items that can be made “angry,” Novak’s spicy version of anything on the menu, with the addition of grilled jalapenos and sriracha sauce.
A house salad ($3.2 side, $6.49 full) is composed of a large portion of romaine lettuce served with tomato, cucumber, carrot, radish, croutons and hard-boiled egg, plus a choice of dressings. Caesar salads ($5.99) can be ordered with the addition of grilled or Cajun chicken ($7.99).
There’s American cheese and then there is American cheese. Novak buys an American cheese that costs more than the other cheeses on his menu. Classic grilled cheese ($4.59) is made with American cheese on grilled Texas toast. Add bacon or tomato for $1 each.
The Maryland crab cake sandwich ($7.99) is homemade in house — never frozen — made with jumbo lump crab and just enough filler to hold it together. The seasoning and the fact that it is grilled, rather than deep-fried, gives it its Maryland style.
Served on a seeded bun with lettuce and tomato and a choice of cocktail sauce or tartar, it is also available as a Maryland crab cake basket ($17.99) served with french fries and cole slaw.
The ultimate crab cake sandwich ($9.99) is the old world-style, roux-thickened crab cake made with peppers and onions, breaded and deep fried to a crisp golden brown
New to the menu are specialty sandwiches, such as the pork belly reuben ($10.99) made with a braised and grilled pork belly, the same cut used for bacon but unsmoked. Sauerkraut and Russian dressing come with the pork on grilled marble rye.
Both of Novak’s brothers live in Philly. Visiting them frequently, they go out to eat often. Pork belly has become a standard in every restaurant they go to.
“I absolutely love it,” Novak says. “ It’s fatty in the best kind of way.”
At the Grilled Cheese and Crab Cake Co. they braise it to make it super tender then slice it thick and pan fry it to make it crispy. It serves as a replacement for corned beef or pastrami, however you normally get your reuben. It’s a new twist on a classic deli sandwich.
The Vietnamese chicken sandwich ($10.99) is something that Novak sampled from a street vendor in New York City that he recreated and made into his own. Called a banh-mi, Novak’s version is a marinated garlic-lime chicken breast that is grilled, then topped with pickled carrots and radishes, sliced red onion, sliced cucumber, cilantro and spicy mayonnaise on a grilled long roll.
A spanish chicken and rice sandwich ($9.99) is made with marinated and grilled garlic-lime chicken. The boneless breast is then topped with a grilled spanish yellow rice and red bean patty, fresh avocado and chipotle mayonnaise, then served on grilled Texas toast.
Novak had a roommate from Puerto Rico last year who made an amazing chicken and rice dish.
“When you think about chicken and rice you think bland and blah, standard and generic, but somehow hers was the most flavorful, wonderful chicken and rice I’ve ever had,” Novak says.
His roommate taught him how to make the dish. But since his restaurant is mainly a sandwich shop, Novak had to figure out a way to turn the dish into a sandwich. His idea was to turn the loose rice and beans into a patty that could be served on a bun instead.
Novak describes his hot pork sandwich ($8.99) as a Philly classic made with his own version of slow-roasted pork loin cooked in its own juices that can be made with provolone and broccoli rabe.
“I realized the only options I had for vegetarians was salads or plain grilled cheese,” Novak says.
He came up with some heartier options.
The fresh veggie quesadilla ($8.99) is made with flour tortillas with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses with vegetables that change daily according to what is available at the market.
A black and blued portabella mushroom burger ($9.99) features a grilled and blackened portabella mushroom instead of a beef patty, with crumbled blue cheese and sliced tomato served on a grilled brioche bun.
Kids can choose from a menu all their own with a grilled cheese ($3.59), mini mac and cheese ($1.99), or a chicken finger basket ($4.99) available.
Desserts are home baked and include choices such as classic apple pie, banana cream pie, cookie dough brownies, peanut butter pie and different cheesecakes.
“I always try to have one cheesecake option, one option that is chocolatey, and then one fruit pie option at the very least,” Novak says.
With summer coming, the menu, —especially seafood choices such as oysters, scallops, and cod — will expand for the season. The popular french fried lobster sandwich will make its seasonal return.
Try one of their amazing sandwiches or burgers
Always fresh — never frozen — ground meat is used for all of the third-pound burgers such as the classic cheeseburger ($6.50), the bacon cheeseburger ($7.50, shown left), the mushroom, onion, and swiss burger ($7.75) and the Texas BBQ burger ($7.99).
Burgers are served on brioche buns, baked fresh daily from Formica Brothers. It’s a big, soft, 4-ounce bun that can take the weight of the burger without falling apart. Both the bun and the burger are grilled for an extra touch
Cheesesteaks are made from chipped ribeye beef and served on Rando rolls. The classic Philly cheesesteak ($6.99), angry cheesesteak ($7.99), chicken cheesesteak ($6.99) and Buffalo chicken steaks ($8.25) can come with various additions.