Read the print version of the story here.
* * *
Winner: Marks Bistro
A big plate of macaroni and cheese is like a snapshot from childhood.
I remember making a box of Kraft for my sister when we were kids, right before we'd watch a Disney movie on VHS. I remember it being gooey and creamy, cheesy and hot. I always ate whatever was left in the pan when my bowl was empty.
I started this macaroni and cheese Food Prowl with that memory in mind next to another beloved macaroni and cheese: My mother-in-law's.
It's laden with Velveeta, has more calories than I care to think about and is absolutely the thing I look forward to most at holiday gatherings (aside from the lovely family itself.)
My side of the family now looks forward to it as much as I do — my husband is in charge of making it each Christmas and Thanksgiving.
It turns out I'm not the only one with more-than-fond feelings about macaroni and cheese. Our whole team this month had memories like mine, and we knew that the best mac we'd find in the city would take this classic — the one we all know and love — and make it even better.
Jeff Peterson contacted me on Twitter and asked to be a judge. His grandmother came from the deep South to the Nebraska Sandhills after the Depression, with her mac and cheese recipe. She cooked it for cowboys around a chuck wagon in the 1940s and '50s. It's the basis for a smoked King Crab macaroni and cheese bake that Jeff cooks in his kitchen and finishes in his smoker. (Jeff, can you invite me over, please?)
And Kim Roth Howe also is serious about the dish. At her house, there is a strict “homemade only” mac and cheese policy. She's a stickler when it comes to noodle texture, sauce, acceptable alternatives to cheddar, mix-ins and, well, you name it, she has an opinion on it.
Armed with opinions and experience, we set out to find Omaha's best version of the dish.
4916 Underwood Ave.
We ran into no fewer than three macaroni and cheese bowls at Omaha restaurants made with twirly, corkscrew-shaped cavatappi pasta. It seems to be the noodle of choice for the modern take on this classic. It makes sense. The pasta holds cheese sauce well and also holds up texturally, we found.
Cavatappi is the pasta served at Marks Bistro in Dundee, which calls mac and cheese its “signature dish.” It's one of the best known places in town to get a bowl and all of the team members had been there.
We knew what was coming: Creamy sauce and al dente pasta with just enough bite topped with crisp panko breadcrumbs that mix up the textures. Jeff ordered his without the chef's accompaniments offered both on the menu and as a daily chef's choice. Kim and I went with add-ins: She got the daily special, bacon and spinach, and I went with a combination on the lunch menu, roasted red peppers and scallions.
My dish came out with spinach instead of scallions, and I'd have rather had what was on the menu. The stem-on spinach was wilted, as expected, and didn't add much flavor. I liked the roasted red peppers, but they added a sweetness I wasn't sure I liked.
Kim's dish came with big chunks of what looked like pork belly — we expected crispy bacon — and her pasta had a sauce that was grainier than the other two bowls. Hers also had a lot less sauce overall and a saltier finish.
Add-in issues aside, Jeff's dish was fantastic. Kim and I both agreed that when ordering mac at Marks, it's best to follow Jeff's lead and keep it simple. We liked the layered flavors that came from a blend of havarti, asiago, cheddar and tangy blue cheeses. Marks classic version, sans additions, became the one to beat.
Big Mama's Kitchen
3223 N. 45th St.
We found our baseline for all the macaroni and cheese we tried at one of the city's best outposts for soul food, Big Mama's Kitchen.
Her version of the dish, served as a side, is the no-fuss, no-muss style that's really close to the one my family eats.
The macaroni is large elbows, cooked until soft. The cheese is probably Velveeta, or one of its cousins. It's not baked, and the only thing we might have asked for was the crispy top that comes with an oven. It's simple.
“If you picture the classic macaroni and cheese,”Jeff said, a few bites in, “this is what you get.”
It was the sort of consistent, solid dish that our team wouldn't mess with and wouldn't turn down. With that classic in mind, we faced the prospect of many more bowls and an eventual champion.
Blatt Beer & Table
610 N. 12th St.
We sat around another bowl of cavatappi at Blatt Beer and Table, but this version looked entirely different from that at Marks.
The corkscrews this time were baked in a deep-dish tin that came out bubbling hot and crisp with a browned top crust. Blatt bathes its noodles in a savory cheddar bechamel that has a deep creamy texture. It had a casserole-like feeling to it; Jeff compared it favorably to a lasagna.
The dish is spiked with fragrant chives, smoked paprika and a deeply browned panko breadcrumb topping.
After a few bites I was having a major love affair with this dish. Its the kind of oozy, gooey sinfully cheesy mac that, to me, is the point of the whole thing. The other two were less convinced. Kim thought the pasta too soft. And though Jeff loved the chives in the sauce, he said he could have lived without the panko crumbs because he felt like they distracted from the otherwise delicious browned top.
They both felt the creamy cheddar bechamel sauce was more one note than Marks' blend of cheeses, and I had to give them that point.
Even with her concerns, though, Kim scraped the browned bits of mac from the sides of the metal pan and devoured them. I watched, jealously, because after all, that's what it's all about.
316 S. 15th St
We met over a third plate of cavatappi at the Zin Room, and I raved about the restaurant's gouda mac and cheese both to the team and in a review I wrote. This time, though, it wasn't what I remembered.
A big white bowl came out with a huge pile of white pasta bathed in sauce. A sprinkle of green Italian parsley added-much needed color.
“That's enormous,” Jeff said.
The sauce had a nice texture, though the chicken mixed into it didn't — cut into almost perfect cubes, it was as white as the cheese sauce, and chewy, too. It also wasn't quite hot enough at just warmer than room temperature.
The gouda flavor was a hit around the table and the consistency of the sauce was spot-on. The smoky gouda, still a personal favorite flavor for me, was something we'd not tasted anywhere else. But the not-great chicken and the too-cool temperature put this dish solidly behind the others.
12317 West Maple Road
I'd received no fewer than a dozen calls and emails from diners urging us to try the mac at Dolce Cafe, so we found ourselves sharing bowls of penne pasta there on a busy Saturday afternoon. I was intrigued to see that Dolce served its mac topped with a meatball, so I ordered one. Jeff got his bowl plain and Kim ordered a salad because we needed the roughage to break through the wall of carbs.
The meatball, with its perfect texture, nice spices and lovely red sauce, was my favorite part of my bowl of macaroni and cheese at Dolce. Both my bowl and Jeff's needed seasonings, particularly salt and pepper. We didn't love the penne, which had a tougher texture than the other pastas we'd tried. This time, the sauce tasted of only one cheese — mild cheddar — and it was more creamy than cheesy.
We all took a minute or two to decide which one of these dishes best represented this classic. Kim went first.
“I'm going with Marks,” she said, “because it's the one I will order again.”
Her vote came with caveats, she said, because of the mix-ins, but the classic version was her favorite.
“I'm also voting Marks, because I think the nuances of the cheese profile there was something we didn't get elsewhere,” he said. “There were a few problems with the execution of the add-ins, but I think it was the best of all the plates.”
I voted — with my gut, and my family and my childhood — for Blatt. Even though I knew my teammates had already outvoted me, I had to choose the dish that was closest to the one I hold so dear. The baked crust, the kick from chives, the gooey texture and the classic cheddar were all I could have asked for — more, probably. Jeff and Kim both agreed that Blatt was their second choice.
“Macaroni and cheese is as American as it gets,” Jeff said. “It's all about taking that childhood flavor from a blue box and playing with it until it becomes something you want to eat as a grownup.”