Time Out Chicago mac & cheese smackdown: what’s in a great mac & cheese?

It is the moment you take the first carb-loaded bite and feel your culinary discovery mission is complete. The moment you lock lips with the decadent béchamel, savor the shy nutmeg  undertones, and realize you never knew gruyère could be so delicious. You are clearly in awe of the chef’s artistry to break new ground and to create innovation in a dish which always struck you as basic, mundane, uneventful. It is that moment when your eyes open in wonderment and you can’t quite believe you’re tasting what you’re tasting: is this the humble mac & cheese – or is this history in the making? Hello, great mac & cheese rendition 🙂

Recently I had the chance to taste several exquisite takes on mac & cheese and to cast my vote to crown the best mac & cheese in Chicago. How exciting – and what a great way to spend the day for me and my mom!

The Mac & Cheese Smackdown was organized by Time Out Chicago for the second year in a row, and the location picked by the organizers was the gorgeous Bridgeport Art Center.

Time Out Chicago challenged eight local restaurants to offer creative takes on mac & cheese and the winner was decided by the public, who cast their votes as they sampled each mac & cheese dish while sipping local craft beer:

With the Smackdown bringing together so many talented Chicago chefs, there was no shortage of innovation. From R Public House‘s creatively titled Uncle Freddy’s Revenge mac & cheese (a reference to alfredo pasta)…

…to Old Town Social‘s mac & cheese pie with bacon (which my mom loved for its sweet, dessert-like flavors and appearance)…

…to The Pasta Bowl‘s macaroni al formaggio (a delightful marriage of pasta, white cheddar and healthfully prepared veggies)…

…and Coco’s Fried Lobster‘s Southern style baked mac & cheese (which oozed scrumptious butter and cheese calories galore!)…

… each participating restaurant pulled all the stops to win over the public’s hearts and minds – and stomachs, of course 🙂

In the end, the short rib mac & cheese made by Luella’s Southern Kitchen got the highest number of votes:

I usually look for well-developed flavors *and* decadent creaminess in a mac & cheese, and the mac & cheese from Luella’s Southern Kitchen delivered big in both respects. The pasta was chunky and hearty (the perfect choice for this dish) and was beautifully steeped in the cheese sauce. Equally important and successful was the ingeniously developed flavor of the meat, which stood out for me from the very beginning. The mild spiciness and unbelievably soft texture of the short rib (which had been braised for 12 hours) were second to none!

Number #2 on my list was the mac & cheese prepared by the Grand Lux Cafe chefs:

As the saying goes, everything tastes better with bacon – and this was definitely true in the case of the The Grand Lux Cafe mac & cheese, whose bacon extravaganza made it a strong contender in the battle over mac & cheese supremacy. Yet, its sauce was not as inventive and multidimensional as the sauce in Luella’s Kitchen’s mac & cheese. The latter’s sophisticated layers of flavor were, in the end, simply impossible to beat:

I had a great time at the Time Out Chicago Mac & Cheese Smackdown, but the experience has also left me wondering. Faced with so many creative renditions of this popular dish, I am questioning my own classic/safe take on mac & cheese, and I’ve been thinking of ways to make it stand out a little bit. Do you have your own mac & cheese recipe? And what makes a mac & cheese a great mac & cheese, after all? Let me know 🙂

*Disclaimer: While I received a complimentary tasting to facilitate this post, all opinions expressed here are my own.

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