Settling in with a bowl of gooey macaroni and cheese is pretty much the culinary equivalent of a hug, and it’s not just for kids: It’s popping up on adult menus everywhere. The dish is simple, comforting, nostalgic and oh so American. And it’s versatile — anything can be a topping!
In our highly scientific approach, we looked at noodle types (it’s not always macaroni) and quality, cheese and cheese sauce, the presence of breadcrumbs and add-in options, presentation and, generally, if it made our bellies swoon.
Here are EW’s top picks for the most mouthwatering, gut-bursting, under-$20 mac-and-cheese entrees (side dishes didn’t qualify) around town.
1. First National Taphouse
51 W. Broadway
First National Taphouse is the best mac dinner on a budget. The “triple threat mac ‘n’ cheese” is $9, but that goes down to $7 during happy hour (3 to 6 pm, Monday through Saturday, and all day Sunday). Noodles are cavatappi, a ridged, corkscrew pasta, baked to a nice al dente. The cheese sauce is a deliciously deadly mix of cheddar, parmesan and Swiss — EW’s only complaint is there’s not enough, especially because its thick crust of toasted bread crumbs can put this mac on the drier, saltier side. A big perk: Take almost anything from the menu and stack it on your mac — buffalo chicken, pulled pork, caprese salad (add-ins are extra). EW chose one with bacon and one with seasonal veggies — carrots, peppers, parsnip, cauliflower and onions.
2. Café 440
440 Coburg Road
This was hands-down the creamiest of the macs tried and one of the larger portions. EW ordered both the “classic mac and cheese” ($10) and the “bacon and bleu mac and cheese” ($13), which are also made with cavatappi noodles, cooked on the softer side. The cheese sauce, which uses cheddar and parmesan, was the closest in taste to a béchamel, or white sauce, and it tastes like dairy heaven. The bacon bits were smaller, which mixed well into the sauce, and the bleu cheese crumbles were loaded (and we mean loaded) on top. Café 440 also offers a “BBQ pork mac and cheese” ($14).
3. Wild Duck Cafe
1419 Villard Street
If you’re a fan of a more fast-food, classic American Velveeta shells-and-cheese kind of mac dish, Wild Duck is your place. We mean this in the best comfort-food kind of way. In our books, boxed mac and cheese is still the crème de la crème. EW ordered both the “plain macaroni and cheese” and “Chef Jen’s macaroni and cheese,” which changes weekly. That week, the Chef’s choice happened to be cheeseburger mac and cheese — yes, you read that right, mac can has cheezburger — topped with pickle slices. It was, of course, delicious in a way that you probably shouldn’t think too hard about; there were definitely flashes of Hamburger Helper. Both macs used the same cheese sauce, which was on the saucier side of the gooey spectrum, and uses provolone, cheddar and Swiss. Macaroni (elbow) noodles cooked perfectly firm.
4. WildCraft Cider House
390 Lincoln Street
WildCraft’s “truffle mac and cheese” is the classiest mac and cheese on our list ($10). And what it lacks in size (it’s served in an adorable ramekin, the smallest portion on this list) it makes up for with an outrageously dreamy and pungent flavor that will stick with you for days. This mac uses white truffle oil (or freshly shaved truffles if available), Farmstead white cheddar and mozzarella, topped with a brioche Parmesan crust. The noodles are the more robust “lumachine,” shaped like fantastic mini-dinner plates loaded with cheese. While add-ins are not on the menu, WildCraft recommends mixing in pesto or adding smoked salmon ($5) or pork belly ($6).
295 W. 17th Avenue; 207 E. 5th Avenue
The “grown-up mac and cheese” ($11.95) at Cornucopia is the closest to the textbook version of a classic mac that we found, and it’s near perfection. The cheddar cheese sauce has that nostalgic orange glow, and the elbow pasta is cooked just right. Like the Taphouse, pretty much anything on the menu can be added in — we went for broccoli and bacon strips. The broccoli was fresh and perfectly steamed, and the bacon was thinly sliced and crunchy, all topped with a fluffy crust of buttered breadcrumbs. This mac is a must and perhaps the most kid-friendly.
6. The Bier Stein
1591 Willamette Street
Though it was close, Bier Stein’s “bier cheese soup mac ‘n’ cheese” ($9.50 full order, $6.50 half) wins best overall mac. First, the presentation is mouthwatering — large, round bowls filled with plump, spiral noodles and sprinkled with fresh parsley. The bier cheese soup — made with an American lager and some bleu cheese — adds a level of magic to the cheese blend of provolone, gouda and cheddar. This mac was also the gooey-est — picture a bridge of melted cheese as you move your fork from the plate to your mouth. Add bacon or seasonal roasted veggies ($2 each) like we did — the veggies are super fresh and yummy, including zucchini, squash, carrots, onions and tomatoes — or go for the grilled chicken bratwurst ($3).
Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen’s creamy, fluffy mac and cheese has a cult following, but alas, it’s served as a side ($3). Oregon Electric Station’s “lobster mac and cheese” is rumored to be decadent and delish, but it was a little above our price point at $21.