In theory, macaroni and cheese is a wonderful dish. The combination of cheese and noodles is pretty much foolproof, or at least that’s what one would think. As a result, this classic Southern favorite that permeated the potlucks and holiday dinners of our youth now exists on most restaurant menus as a nod to nostalgia. It is, after all, comfort food.
Dallas might be the mac-n-cheese capital of the world. Even swankier spots, like John Tesar’s Knife and The Joule’s CBD Provisions, are offering refined takes on a dish whose roots lie in processed cheese and $1 elbow macaroni. That has everything to do with fine dining’s dip toward more casual, approachable fare, but the unintended consequences have been grave. At this point, there’s only one position to take: Death to macaroni and cheese.
We all love the comfort of this classic combination, but at most restaurants, it’s poorly executed. The noodles are frequently rubbery and overcooked thanks to hours of sitting around in a steamy kitchen. The sauce, which should be velvety and rich, is often flavorless and grainy. God help you if it has been drenched in truffle oil or any other variety of accoutrements. And it is always, always too expensive — I don’t care what kind of breadcrumbs and magic bacon you put on top, I’m not paying $14 for a ramekin of cheesy noodles.
It’s not so much the dish that is the problem; it's this insistence that it must be on every single menu. Some chefs buck the trend, though. Last year, Brian Zenner, then working at Oak, told us that mac and cheese was one of those dishes that is “too played out and cheesy” for him to put it on the menu. He didn’t mean "cheesy" literally, but at this point the dish is so dated and so associated with chain restaurants and that clown Guy Fieri that fine dining chefs should want to stay far, far away.
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And most of them do, but it’s undeniably a crowd-pleaser. Chefs know they can drive down their margins if they serve you a $14 bowl of noodles that cost them $1 to make next to your $38 Wagyu steak, which they might actually be losing money on. Chefs know that if they combine the words “lobster” and “macaroni and cheese,” the adoring, expensive shellfish-loving public won’t be able to pass it up. Put simply, we’ve put ourselves in this terrible position.
Certainly, Dallas has plenty of good iterations of macaroni and cheese. Ida Claire’s pimiento mac and cheese is the stuff of dreams when it’s prepared correctly and served fresh, and so is Nick & Sam’s and Knife’s. But to get to these few excellent examples, you have to wade through a lot of mediocre glue, and that just isn’t worth it. Which means that we’re going to have to start ordering more interesting appetizers.
Instead of getting the mac and cheese again, go for something weird. Something you’ve never heard of. Even if you end up ordering mac and cheese because you’re not satisfied or hate trying new things, at least you tried to shake things up, right? Diversifying what you order means more diversity in the offerings on local restaurant menus, and we should at least pretend that matters.
Mac and cheese is never going to disappear entirely, and the good versions will always exist. But is it too much to ask that the bad versions just die? There’s no reason to ease this menu option out of existence — just take it behind the barn (kitchen) and put it out of its (our) misery. Hopefully many creative appetizers — ones without truffle oil and bacon — will take its place. Perhaps more hummus and pâté and strange, fried creatures of the sea?