Top 10 macaroni & cheese dishes in the Twin Cities
High rent or lowbrow, the meeting of pasta and cheese is just so good
photo courtesy Haute Dish
If ever there was a loaded dish, it is this. A dish full of fat, cream, cheese, and nostalgia, and so hearty it can redeem the saddest, most downtrodden day. When eaters speak of comfort food, so often they speak of macaroni and cheese. After scouring the Twin Cities for the dishes, armed with buffet pants and giant sporks, we've sussed out the cheesy best.
10. Mac & Cheese on a stick (at the State Fair) It's easy to just hit up the obvious favorites when eating your way through the State Fair each year: the pronto pups, the pickles-on-a-stick, the sweet corn, the miscellaneous fried potato products, and of course, that golden cradle of fat known as the cheese curd. But sometimes the best food discoveries are those that remain a secret. The macaroni on a stick definitely fits into that category. But worry not--this meal has all the makings of a fair classic. Deep-fried outer shell? Check. On a stick? Check. Cheesy goodness packed into each bite? Check. So don't judge a State Fair food based on the line of salivating consumers. For around three bucks, the carbs from the macaroni will give you strength while standing in the blockbuster-sized line for those deep-fried candy bars.
9. Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group The pop art zing of the décor is as entertaining as a People magazine cover story. Upbeat pop music reverberates through the room. The Tim McKee-influenced menu doesn't try to masquerade as anything other than fun, fried bites. Their mac and cheese entry is gobsmacked with cheese, a thick, yellow cream river with boulders of soft tomato chunks and splinters of Applewood smoked bacon. It's not elegant, it's not trying to show off, this is just happy, fun food. (3001 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.877.7263)
8. Twin City Grill, Mall of America Of all the places a snooty gourmand would least expect to find a Top 10 dish, the mecca of retail sales might head the list. And yet ... the food at the Twin Cities Grille has been, year after year, consistently good despite the close proximity to the whirling Nickelodeon-sponsored theme park. The macaroni and cheese is hearty, cheesy, and includes a favorite foil, bacon. Plenty of good, salty, pork-fat-redolent bacon can elevate any simple cheese and pasta combination. This entry into the mac & cheese pantheon has a highbrow combination of salty, pungent and creamy cheeses tossed with fruity addition of diced tomatoes beneath a bed of buttery, crispy breadcrumbs. A thankfully tasty oasis in the land of Food Court wonders. (Mall of America, Bloomington; 952.854.0200)
7. Eli's Eli's Food & Cocktails is the neighborhood restaurant that every neighborhood wishes it had. The bar is manned by folks who know a Manhattans from a martini, and it also sports a terrific wine and beer list. The food is straightforward American bistro, unfussy, unfoamed, and full of familiar flavors. The dish that draws regulars and newbies from across the metro is the mac and cheese. Fat tubes of penne are ensconced in a white cheddar sauce and coated with a spot-on and crispy crust. Served in a small casserole dish, it's homey, simple elegance. The cheese is a mix of gooey mozzarella, salty, aged Parmesan, and Asiago, with a finish of the melt master--American cheese. (1225 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.332.9997)
6. Muffuletta's One of the original fancy takes on mac and cheese, Muffuletta uses orichette pasta and adds in shaved shallot and bits of smokey, salty, delightfully porky nubbins of Fischer Farms bacon. The little ear-shaped pasta acts as a reservoir for the creamy, white cheese sauce. Baked crusty on top, the dish has a pleasant mix of textures and an ample supply of bacon. Served on a white, linen table cloth, it's a wink toward childhood, with a decidedly grown-up flair. This mac and cheese entry pairs beautifully with a nice glass of white wine, which offers a crispy acidity for the elegant decadence of the macaroni and cheese. (2260 Como Ave., St. Paul; 651.644.9116)
5. Good Day Café All sorts of restaurant chefs make a mac dish with fancy cheeses, drizzle it with truffle oil, and bronze its panko-crusted top with a quick trip to the broiler. The Good Day Cafe, which specializes in such gussied-up Americana, labels its mac and cheese "adults only." Classic, elbow-shaped noodles are fused together with a mix of melted cheddar, Fontina, and Gorgonzola cheeses, which cuts the richness with a little kid-stopping pungence. Little ones would probably do just fine with its bits of tomato, onion, and smoky bacon nubs, as well as its roasted garlic breadcrumb topping, but one thing Gen Z is going to need to learn is patience. We won't serve it to 'em until they're 18. (5410 Wayzata Blvd., Minneapolis; 763.544.0205)
4. Café Maude Café Maude is known for amazing cocktails, fabulous fries and a killer mac and cheese all wrapped up in its own brand of elegance. Maude's version of this ubiquitous dish is a gravy boat sort of vessel. Fat penne pasta is tossed in a decadent white, creamy cheese dusted with a feathery layer of Parmesan cheese. Salty aged cheddar and gooey Fontina are cut by a welcome zing of zesty mustard seeds. The crusty buttered croutons studding the entire affair add that great bit of edge, so welcome in a lusty love affair. (5411 Penn Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.822.5411)
The Lowry's Cavatappi & cheese sauce
3. The Lowry Squiggles of cavatappi are enmeshed in gooey strands of white cheese. A giant bowl arrives full of pasta, in what appears to be a simply creamy, cheese sauce flecked with tiny bits of parsley beneath a smattering of golden breadcrumbs. But try to take a bite and you'll find that the stringy bits of cheese pasta are wholly enmeshed in the sauce. Better to take the scoop-and-shovel approach to eating this one. The butter crumbles of bread are spiked with garlic and add a welcome bit of texture atop the perfectly chewy pasta. At $10, the giant bowl of comfort-food will easily fill two bellies. (2112 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.341.2112)
Haute Dish's mac & cheese & crab
2. Haute Dish The elegance of the re-imagined comfort food crafted at Haute Dish shines through in every dish, and its mac and cheese is no exception. The hollow, short noodles are the size of throw pillows. Buried beneath that crusty topping and funky cream of Talleggio, hopped with more earthy funk from a drizzled of truffle oil, lies pinkish, finger-sized chunks of king crab legs. As a wise man once said, sometimes too much is never enough. (119 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis; 612.338.8484)
1. Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque The depressing truth is that most children are raised to believe that mac and cheese comes from a blue and white box--noodles boiled into oblivion and microwaved with a neon orange substance masquerading as cheese. When an order of Smalley's mac and cheese arrives at the table, it's startlingly familiar. Small elbows are coated in orange cheese, and yet--oh, yes. One forkful banishes the expectation of processed food. This is no ordinary mac and cheese. Each noodle is perfectly cooked al dente. Gooey, creamy, with just the right amount of salt, the entire dish is a childhood dream come true--maybe even better, because it's just so confounding good. This is what lovers of noodles and cheese sauce rhapsodize about. It should come as no surprise, owner Shawn Smalley is no ordinary BBQ slinger, having come from the hallowed halls of Tim McKee's La Belle Vie. He's got the white linen training. The mac and cheese is just a side offered at the Caribbean-influenced BBQ joint at only $4, but a vat created by three or four orders wouldn't be a bad idea. Take the crazy train one more stop to Awesomeville and include the chilies and bacon on top. Charred mild poblanos cooked until silken, with just a bit of fire-smoke flavor and paired with salty-crisp bacon, are the perfect foil for this: the perfect mac and cheese. (423 Main St., Stillwater; 651.439.5375)
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.