America's Best Mac and Cheese
Thomas Jefferson helped popularize mac and cheese when he served the dish at an 1802 state dinner (after lugging home a pasta machine from France). Ever since, chefs have been whipping up their own incarnations of this quintessential comfort food.
At Queens Kickshaw in New York, for instance, cooks throw green beans into a mix of fancy Gruyère and smoked mozzarella, while San Francisco’s Blue Plate submerges its noodles in wine-drenched goat cheese.
Other restaurants, like Community Q in Atlanta and The Old Fashioned in Madison, WI, win over diners by perfecting the mac-and-cheese basics.
“While I admire the creative concoctions coming out of a lot of kitchens, I’m a purist when it comes to mac and cheese,” says Yasmin Fahr, a recipe columnist at SeriousEats.com. “I don’t want bits of bacon, lobster, or kale in there—just good old-fashioned noodles and cheese—the more cheese, the better.”
No matter how they prefer it, enthusiasts would surely agree on two points: mac and cheese can be so much tastier than the kind that comes in a blue box, and it’s worth traveling to sample the very best.
As Stephanie Bourgeois, head recipe tester at Food52.com, a food site for home cooks, puts it: “Looking for the perfect mac and cheese can feel a bit like the quest for the Holy Grail.”
It seems daunting to even try to unearth America’s best mac and cheese, but we sure had fun along the way. Check out our favorites and share yours in the comments below.
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Seattle and New York
Located in Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market, Beecher’s wins multiple American Cheese Society awards each year and has been heralded by die-hard fans as well as The Martha Stewart Show as the “world’s best.” The dish gets its special oomph from Beecher’s Flagship cheese, which is aged 15 months to develop its signature nutty flavor. A dash of chipotle adds a hint of smokiness. No plans to venture west? Swing by Beecher’s New York City outpost—or try the recipe at home.
Cheesetique, Arlington and Alexandria, VA
In 2004, Cheesetique owner Jill Erber ditched a cushy office job developing software to open her very own cheese emporium (and wine bar, as of 2008). We’ll be forever grateful she did: the shop’s decadent mac features a mix of rich goat Gouda, zesty Asiago, and tangy Cacio di Roma. For extra crunch, Erber tops her gooey masterpiece with crispy bread crumbs coated in truffle oil. cheesetique.com
Mizuna Mac and Cheese, Denver
Inspired by mentor Thomas Keller’s famous lobster mac and cheese with orzo, chef Frank Bonanno makes his version by drenching sweet, poached lobster meat in mascarpone cheese and heavy cream—along with good old-fashioned macaroni noodles. Bonanno’s saucy take strikes the perfect balance between refined flavor and careless indulgence. It’s best savored after a day spent exploring Denver’s many outdoor attractions. mizunadenver.com
Crave Kitchen & Cocktails, Mount Pleasant, SC
Some restaurant menus make vague claims of “award-winning” recipes, but Crave’s mac and cheese is the real deal. Voted the “most life-changing mac ‘n’ cheese in America” by Esquire’s readers, the dish also dominated the People’s Choice Award at Charleston’s annual Mac Off competition—three times in a row. Credit goes to the corkscrew-shaped cavatappi noodles, which give the dish an ultra-chewy texture, plus a few top-secret ingredients suggested by the chef’s daughter. cravemtp.com
Little Bird, Portland, OR
Known for its local produce and artisanal foods, Portland’s foodie scene doesn’t mess around (just check out these hilarious Portlandia clips). And neither does Little Bird’s mac and cheese. Gabriel Rucker, a 2011 James Beard Rising Star Chef, combines Tillamook cheddar and Emmi Gruyère with one rotating cheese to make the restaurant’s “macaroni gratin” worth coming back for repeatedly. Chives add a note of freshness. littlebirdbistro.com
Queens Kickshaw, Queens, NY
The mac at Queens Kickshaw contains the typical ingredients you’d expect in a fancy mac and cheese: smoked mozzarella, Gruyère, and…green beans? The popular Astoria restaurant sells an incarnation of the dish many mac purists would consider blasphemous. But chef Youngsun Lee knows what he’s doing, having worked at some of New York’s best restaurants—like Annisa and Momofuku Noodle Bar. Still unsure? It’s worth the trek to Queens to decide for yourself. thequeenskickshaw.com
Community Q BBQ, Atlanta
Look up Atlanta barbecue joint Community Q online, and you’ll quickly notice a pattern: almost every review of the down-home restaurant near Emory University contains fervent declarations like “Unbelievably delicious!” and even “Inspiring!” Owner David Roberts makes his signature baked mac with rigatoni pasta and a medley of cheeses including sharp cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Parmesan. It’s the perfect accompaniment to classic southern barbecue favorites like pulled pork and sliced beef brisket. communityqbbq.com
The Blue Plate, San Francisco
The ultimate mac and cheese for adults can be found in a cozy little restaurant on Valencia Street in the Mission District. The Blue Plate’s recipe is so revered among locals that it hasn’t changed since 1999. The star ingredient is “Drunken” Goat Cheese, cured in Spanish red wine for two months. To offset their cheesy indulgence, patrons can pair the mac with a side of fresh local vegetables. blueplatesf.com
Purple People Eatery, Miami
Don’t be fooled by the single healthy ingredient in The Purple People Eatery food truck’s Mac ‘n’ Jack. This ultra-rich mac may contain broccoli, but it’s the perfect dish for foodies who love to rationalize. The mac features noodles smothered in Monterey Jack, sharp cheddar, and Gouda—and for $2 more you can add bacon. purpleppleatery.com
The Old Fashioned, Madison, WI
Wisconsinites know cheese, and The Old Fashioned’s mac is stuffed with the best varieties the region’s small producers have to offer, among them seven-year-old Vern’s cheddar and SarVecchio, a special type of Parmesan. But the restaurant isn’t content to showcase just one of Wisconsin’s culinary delicacies: for $3 more, the creamy dish can be served with bologna from Fendt Brothers Meat Market in Watertown. theoldfashioned.com
Slows Bar BQ, Detroit
You know the mac and cheese is good if it can stand proud as an entrée—with two sides of its own. Slows, an authentic barbecue joint located across the street from the abandoned Michigan Central Station, is playing a key role in inner-city Detroit’s rejuvenation. Just a year after opening in 2005, the restaurant did a whopping $1.8 million in sales, and it has since inspired a wave of new barbecue spots throughout the city (not to mention a nearby artisanal pizza shop). slowsbarbq.com
Chicago winters demand comfort foods that can stand up to the city’s brutal temperatures, and this vegetarian restaurant’s Chili Mac Attack! delivers. The local favorite is made of smoked Gouda, veggie chili, aged cheddar, sour cream, pickled jalapeños, and tortilla crisps. Add it to the long list of hot dogs and deep-dish pizza to try the next time you’re in town. handlebarchicago.com
Bay Cities Italian Deli, Los Angeles
Santa Monica’s unassuming Bay Cities Italian Deli is best known for giant sandwiches with names like The Godmother. But it’s the deli’s eight-cheese mac that L.A. Weekly singles out as the area’s number one dish of its kind. If you choose to battle the shop’s long lunch lines, be sure to order the baked version—fans on Yelp warn the macaroni side dish isn’t nearly as tasty. baycitiesitaliandeli.com
Morning Glass Coffee + Café, Honolulu
They do things a little differently in Hawaii. At Morning Glass Coffee + Café, customers line up to order the signature mac ‘n’ cheese pancakes. Yep, you heard that right: the sweet and savory dish, presented with bacon and maple syrup, consists of pancakes filled with elbow macaroni and aged Vermont cheddar. To really shake things up, order it at the monthly “night breakfast” from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. morningglasscoffee.com
Union Pig and Chicken, Pittsburgh, PA
In a city known for putting French fries in its salads, it may come as no surprise that Union Pig and Chicken puts meat in its mac. Chef Kevin Sousa’s creative version combines noodles with brisket, crumbled blue cheese, and a touch of wasabi oil. Purists can still opt for tried-and-true meatless mac and cheese. unionpgh.com
Parkside, Austin, TX
Gastropub Parkside describes its mac dish simply as “macaroni, gruyere, and cheddar” on its dinner menu, but don’t underestimate it. Chef Shawn Cirkiel, a Culinary Institute of America grad who honed his skills at esteemed restaurants like New York’s Café Boulud, puts his wizardry to work on the mac and cheese. One user on the snobby Chowhound discussion boards professed: “I could bathe in it; it’s that good!” parkside-austin.com
BACON MANia, Orange County and Sacramento, CA
We suspect the BACON MANia food truck owes a sizable portion of its Twitter followers to its Mac’n Bac’n, a decadent serving of hickory-smoked pork belly with sharp cheddar cheese and al dente noodles. Perhaps you want yours with a side of Mac’n Bac’n fries? The popular food truck wraps mini-brownies and bite-size cinnamon rolls in—you guessed it—bacon before dipping both desserts in the deep fryer. Not for the faint of heart! twitter.com/BACONMANia
Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, Savannah, GA
It’s no surprise you can find Savannah’s best mac and cheese at the city’s most popular lunch spot. In 1943, Sema Wilkes began serving traditional southern fare at her boarding house in downtown Savannah, and 70 years later patrons still line up outside of Mrs. Wilkes’ to savor home-cooked goodness like fried chicken, collard greens, and heavenly cheddar mac in a family-style atmosphere. (Even President Obama is a fan!)
Brand BBQ, Chicago
At Chicago’s Brand BBQ, cooks and customers alike aren’t content to relegate meaty fare like pulled pork and baby back ribs to the main course. The restaurant’s Burnt Ends Mac and Cheese delivers a wallop of umami thanks to its serious ingredients: smoked Gouda and cheddar mac topped with crispy, savory pieces of meat. 2824 W Armitage Ave.
When it comes to ingredients, truffle oil is as trendy as it gets. But there’s no hype to Shade’s Gruyère mac and cheese, which comes with a faint drizzle—just pure, creamy perfection. The dish is a favorite menu item at the award-winning Houston restaurant, which is known for its cross-cultural menu—choose between Peking duck or Scottish salmon for dinner.
Local 149, Boston
At Boston’s Local 149 (voted the best restaurant in “Southie” by the Improper Bostonian), you can order the regular mac with Velveeta. Or, you can kick it up 12 notches and choose the fritters instead—mac and cheese balls coated in bread crumbs, fried, and served up with spicy ketchup. No wonder Local 149 ranks as the city’s fourth most popular American restaurant on Foursquare. local149.com
Cowbell, New Orleans
Shallots, thyme, and roasted poblano peppers: Cowbell’s chef and owner Brack May knows a thing or two about how to jazz up one of America’s most beloved dishes. In between bites of traditional New Orleans treats like gumbo and beignets, visitors to New Orleans should add the Signature Cowbell Mac & Cheese to their must-eat list. The restaurant’s menu reads, “If you don’t get this, others will shun you. Fact.” cowbell-nola.com
Prime Smokehouse, Rocky Mount, NC
Rather than rely on a laundry list of complex ingredients, the baked mac and cheese at barbecue wonderland The Prime Smokehouse gets its killer flavor from masterful execution—and family secrets. Managing partner Ed Wiley III based the homemade dish on a recipe by his father, Ed Wiley, Jr., a jazz saxophonist who was as gifted in the kitchen as he was on the stage. Stop by on Friday and Saturday nights for the Dinner Jazz Series. primesmokehouse.com