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The Bacchanalian: The search for the best macaroni and cheese

By Karlton Tate, Isaac Rosso Klakovich and David Margolies

While many restaurants in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area offer the classic southern dish that is macaroni and cheese, there are countless variations of the meal. Some restaurants keep the flavors simple, while others take inspiration from true southern cooking and season the dish to add hints of zest and spice. The ECHO believes that no menu is complete without the cheesy noodles, and so we set out to find Chapel Hill’s finest macaroni and cheese.

Timeout: 2/5

Upon entering Timeout, it is clear that despite being open 24 hours a day, this is a restaurant that expects to do the majority of its business after the sun goes down. Like the cuisine of many 24 hour restaurants, Timeout’s macaroni and cheese seemed rather uninspired, lacking any sort of unique taste. The slightly congealed cheese combined with the severely overdone noodles made for a severely underwhelming bite of the so-called comfort food. Criminally underseasoned, people looking for a late night serving of macaroni and cheese might be better off staying home and fixing themselves a bowl of Kraft or Annie’s. Senior Katie Crisp, who accompanied the ECHO on its journey to find Chapel Hill’s best macaroni and cheese, agreed that Timeout should only be seen as a last resort.

Timeout's bland macaroni and cheese
Timeout’s bland macaroni and cheese

“[There is] no reason to get this unless everywhere else is closed,” declared Crisp.

Elmo’s Diner: 2.5/5

Elmo’s Diner is a staple in the Triangle for family-friendly dining, offering many different kinds of classic American fare. Unfortunately, it seems that the quality of Elmo’s Mac and cheese does not align with the establishment’s fantastic reputation. For $2.50, one can expect a small saucer of the bland, overdone pasta dish–an item clearly meant to be sold as a side. The overall flavor of the cheese sauce is  boring and the texture is dry. Upon taking the first bite, it is clear that too much flour and not enough care had been put into the recipe. The dish contains notes of pepper and other spices, but these flavors do not protrude until the aftertaste sets in. Elmo’s mac and cheese is a dish clearly not meant as a main course, and would benefit greatly from a boost in flavor and some much needed tender love and care.

Panera Bread: 4/5

Panera Bread's macaroni and cheese comes with a side of bread.
Panera Bread’s macaroni and cheese comes with a side of bread.

Panera Bread is a favorite among Chapel Hillians for its delicious baked goods and wide array of soups, pastas, sandwiches and salads. Although Panera is a chain, the restaurant offers a homey and comfortable feel with indoor and outdoor seating options. For $4.99, Panera offers a delicious bowl macaroni and cheese as well as a side of bread, apple, or chips at no additional cost. The rich and creamy dish is packed full of flavor, and is large enough to fill the hungriest of customers. The noodles in this macaroni and cheese were surprisingly al dente and paired extremely well with the thick and salty white cheddar sauce. Panera was also extremely generous with the cheese sauce, making the dish nearly seem like a cheesy soufflé. Although a little pricey, one can expect the high quality and great taste Panera is known for in their macaroni and cheese.

The Pig: 4.5/5

The Pig's flavorful macaroni and cheese was the highlight of the ECHO's sampling.
The Pig’s flavorful macaroni and cheese was the highlight of the ECHO’s sampling.

As many students at East (with or without) an off campus pass will tell you, The Pig is an accessible barbecue joint that can easily satisfy the stomach’s lunch time growls. Unsurprisingly, the casual eatery offers a great southern rendition of macaroni and cheese. At $3.25, the dark yellow noodles are served as a reasonably priced side dish of generous proportions. The soft macaroni coupled with the gooey cheese work together to form an explosion of flavor in your mouth. The Pig’s offerings were also well seasoned, combining smokey barbeque sauce flavors with hints of paprika and black pepper to create a warm and flavorful dish. For the size, price, and seasonings, the ECHO believes that The Pig whips up some of Chapel Hill’s best macaroni and cheese.

In the opinion of the ECHO, making a solid plate of macaroni and cheese wasn’t as easy as many might be led to believe. Even with a dish so simple, two of the restaurants we visited failed to make anything that couldn’t be easily recreated and even improved upon at home. However, Panera’s offering was surprisingly delicious for a chain restaurant, and The Pig made a strong case for why it is the best option for students with an off campus pass.

Photos by Karlton Tate

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