This week, it’s all about mac & cheese — the classic combo that for decades has served as a staple for childhood summertime lunches, “fend for yourself night” dinners and broke college students’ pantries everywhere. It’s cheap, easy, delicious and ingeniously engineered. Think about it: What better way to deliver copious amounts of creamy, cheesy goodness than with hollow pasta that lends itself to being stuffed with and totally enveloped in sauce? I’ll give you a hint: There isn’t a better way.
Given my maybe all-too-obvious love of cheese and carbs, I nearly had a coronary when I heard Noodles & Company’s grown-up mac is back by popular demand. Bacon, mac & cheeseburger; chili mac; truffle mac with baby portabellas; and the standard Wisconsin mac & cheese sound like foolproof ways to get through a week jam-packed with impossible midterms. Notebook in hand, I take it upon myself to bust into Noodles and pit their dishes against one another in a battle of the mac. May the best pasta win.
Coming in last is the surprisingly awful bacon, mac & cheeseburger. Though it sounds good in theory, the execution is embarrassing in reality. The meat, which one would think is crucially important to a cheeseburger mac, is nearly nonexistent in the dish — that is, unless you order a few expensive meatballs on top. And despite their price, the beef is tough, reheated and how I imagine overcooked, freezer-burnt breakfast sausage would taste. Chunks of cold Roma tomato cool the dish to a displeasing lukewarm temperature, and the bacon crumbles are chewier than dehydrated jerky, ensuring my next visit to the dentist will be an expensive one. Each bite proves to be oversalted, and the cheddar-jack cheese sauce does little to save the dish. For a more sincere ode to the cheeseburger, I would have also liked to see a teaspoon of dill-pickle relish and some caramelized onion mixed in. But alas, the scallions dressing the mac will have to suffice as my only consolation.
Taking the bronze is the bacon, mac & cheeseburger’s slightly superior cousin: chili mac. If I had to describe the bowl in one word, I would offer “warm.” The heartening Southwest seasonings, beautiful, deep-orange cheese sauce and subdued earth-tone ingredients transport me back home, next to the fireplace, where I sit, eat and watch snow fall through the picture window. The first few bites are exquisite and truly powerful, but the flavors soon collide, lose momentum and fall flat. Again, this dish is too salty. The tomatoes are still colder and sparser than I would like, and the starchy kidney beans are really overabundant. The cheddar-jack cheese sauce is tasty, but spooned on too stingily to satisfy my requirement for such an essential ingredient. Moreover, I see the absence of an authentically Mexican cheese, like Manchego, as a missed opportunity to really make this dish something special.
In second place, we have the everyday Wisconsin mac & cheese, a pleasingly good mac by any standard. For starters, a base of thickened heavy cream and cheddar cheese sauce is spooned into the bottom of a shallow bowl. A ladle of perfectly al dente elbow noodles made from amber durum wheat is layered in next, followed by a small handful of mild Monterey and cheddar-jack cheeses. You are obligated to stir the pasta yourself, allowing your mouth time to water in anticipation as the shredded cheese becomes stringy, melting right before your eyes. Each bite tastes like mac & cheese should, the way it did before the advent of processed cheeses, à la Velveeta. The dish is uncomplicated, hearty, warm and rich. No need to bother with protein add-ons here; just savor the simplicity.
And the winner is … truffle mac! For those of you wondering what a truffle is, it’s a glorified mushroom common in haute cuisine that can sell for up to $100,000 per pound (but usually closer to $1,000 to $2,500 per pound). Noodles economically sneaks the ingredient into this fancy-pants dish by infusing its classic cheese sauce with some white truffle-oil, which is then added to a hearty cup of macaroni, thickly sliced baby portabella mushrooms, nutty Parmesan cheese and homemade toasted breadcrumbs. The mushrooms aren’t tough as I thought they might be; the breadcrumbs are perfectly browned and vary in size, unlike the uniformly manufactured ones found in the grocery aisle; the textures perfectly complement and contrast with one another, like the best of old married couples. I am left wanting nothing, save authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in lieu of the domestic Parmesan. But for $7.95, I can’t complain.
And with that, I conclude my mac battle. I am happy to report that I did indeed survive exam week and managed to slip into only two mac & cheese-induced comas from my adventures at Noodles & Company. Come the next round of exams at the end of the semester, I encourage you to do the same.