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The Maturation of Mac & Cheese

By John DiGilio in Food on Apr 1, 2011 3:00PM


When we were kids, few meals evoked such excitement and anticipation as macaroni and cheese. Whether it was mom’s homemade, hot from the oven, or the strangely orange stove-stop version that came from a box, mac and cheese was one of those rare meals of choice for even the most finicky kids among us. Truth be told, not much has changed now that we are adults. Our tastes may have matured, but they have not really refined. We still love the dish. Luckily for us, adult restaurants have caught on and steaming spoonfuls of soft macaroni dripping with melted cheese are no longer the stuff of childhood dreams. Then again, the decadent creations being served up today are not your mama’s mac and cheese!

Macaroni and cheese is back in vogue for us big people today and it has certainly come a long way, baby. What was once a bit of a culinary one-trick pony (There were not exactly a lot of variations on the dish in the old days!) has now become the object of a game of one-up-manship among restaurants. From creative flavor-pairings to off-the-wall presentations, the mac is where it’s at. Have you seen The Southern Mac & Cheese Truck on the streets of Chicago yet? It is usually mobbed, thanks to one of the most extensive menus of macaroni and cheese we have ever seen. They have vegetarian, meaty, and even dessert versions on board. Their “roasted artichoke, spinach and goat cheese fondue” concoction is a savory, filling delight. The equally delicious “black truffle, crab, and white cheddar” is hearty and reminiscent of a fine, thick bisque. You have to get to them early as the choices sell out fast.

Even the chains are getting in on the growing craze. Noodles & Company, known for its fun and funky macaroni menu, recently unveiled a trio of “grown up” mac and cheese dishes. We sampled them all, at once feeling like big kids and discerning adults. The “truffle mac with baby portabellas” was tasty and decadent. The “southwestern chili mac” was a nice, spicy surprise. The “bacon, mac, and cheeseburger” was like eating a deconstructed Whopper on a bed of noodles. Yes, it was that good. Bar Louie, another popular chain that is trying to bring this childhood staple back to the adult palate, has perhaps the most simple offering of them all. Their baked macaroni and cheese starts out about as basic as it gets. On a recent visit to one of their outposts, we watched as plate after plate of it left the kitchen. Mind you, there were no kids in the place - not little ones at least. At Bar Louie, you can add things like chicken or broccoli to your order should the simple mac and cheese be too plain for you.

We could go on and on about macaroni and cheese in the Windy City. There are so many choices. The bottom line seems to be that the older we get the younger we become. As Generation X begins to gray, we are taking the cheap comforts of our childhoods and turning them into the haute cuisines of our adult years. Remember when cupcakes were small and cheap? It should be no surprise then that macaroni and cheese has come so far. We are not complaining, of course. They say you are only as old as you feel. If it takes a few truffles in our mac and cheese to make us feel young again, then sign us up and send out a bowl lickety-split.