Macaroni and cheese. What’s more wholesome and comforting than a steaming hot bowl of mac and cheese? Everybody loves macaroni and cheese. What other dish transcends age, geographic region and politics like a good bowl of mac?
At present, Portland's seams are bursting with the stuff—how many menus can you think of that don't feature it? But here are six cheesy macs that we think are worthy of your time and a big spoon.
First things first. When you order a bowl of Mother's macaroni and cheese du jour—it literally changes every day—it doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be getting a bowl of macaroni. Your bowl might be filled with fusilli, farfalle, penne, rotini or whatever else scratches the kitchen's itch. And don't expect your mac to be thick, gloopy and creamy with cheese (as good as that sounds), because each dish is made to order and sautéed, resulting in a mac that's surprisingly light, yet still heavy on flavor. Owner and chef Lisa Schroeder says that if you're a regular, you can always order "off the menu," asking for one of your past favorite macs du jour. (Schroeder likes hers made with roasted garlic, prosciutto and provolone cheese, topped with grated parmesan and chopped parsley.) And because Schroeder offers gluten-free pastas and never uses a roux to thicken the sauce, Mother's can also accommodate those with dietary restrictions.
Mother's Bistro, 212 SW Stark St., 503.464.1122
Davis Street Tavern
The three-cheese béchamel in this dish (Tillamook white cheddar, pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano) clings to and flavors the macaroni, or girella romita in this case, which are fat noodles spun into tight spirals that the tavern flies in from Naples. But much of the rich, creamy goodness pools in the bottom of your bowl, so dig in there with your spoon. Your server will also offer to spice things up—you can order your dish with dual ramekins of Sriracha and Secret Aardvark hot sauces—and he or she will ask if you'd like yours sprinkled with finely ground pepper from the mill. Take advantage of both. And according to general manager Brian McCaul, you'll soon be able to order your macaroni and cheese, on the regular, in not-so-kosher ways—with crab meat or pancetta, or, should you feel particularly defiant, both.
Davis Street Tavern, 500 NW Davis St., 503.505.5050
Pause Kitchen and Bar
Pause’s macaroni and cheese is wholesome, hearty and served piping hot, so you'll want to give it a moment to cool. Made with a three-cheese béchamel steeped with onions, garlic, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper, as well as elbow macaroni that's been scored with ridges to capture and hold as much cheese as possible, the mac is crusted with panko and baked in a shallow ceramic bowl until it's creamy on the inside and crunchy on top. One other warning, though: Eat it slowly—it's rich. And if you're in the mood, ask for the kitchen to stir in some wild mushrooms or sausage, which is ground, stuffed and smoked on-site.
Pause Kitchen and Bar, 5101 N Interstate Ave., 971.230.0705
Like Pause's mac, Savoy's is wholesome, rustic and, yes, baked until its panko-crusted top is golden brown. It also comes in two sizes—as a happy hour snack and as a side, although the side's closer in size to an entrée. And even though the folks at Savoy take pride in the fact that they locally source many of the ingredients that make up their dishes (and from as close as a garden out back), the white cheddar cheese and curds in their mac are shipped all the way from Wisconsin, where they know how to do cheese right. Come for the fried cheese curds and free live music on Thursday nights, but stay for the mac.
Savoy Tavern, 2500 SE Clinton St., 503.808.9999
What separates Laurelhurst Market's mac and cheese from all the others? First, there's the pasta, a bugle-shaped variety known as torchio. Next, there's the baked crust, made not from panko but from the crushed remains you'd normally find at the bottom of a bag of Tim's Cascade Original Potato Chips. The cheeses change often, so ask your server which make up that night's béchamel. But the most unusual characteristic, and possibly the most powerful, of Laurelhurst's mac is the strange buzz it gives your tongue. It's not quite a numbing, because you can still taste what you're eating. In a way, it's as if your tongue has disappeared, but your taste buds have remained intact. Is it possible for a mac and cheese to intoxicate? Try some for yourself and see what happens.
Laurelhurst Market, 3155 E Burnside St., 503.206.3097
Of all the many macs out there, it's possible that Breakside's is the kitchen-sinkiest of them all. Who needs three cheeses when you can have five (vintage white cheddar, gruyère, romano, asiago and parmesan)? Mixed into each bowl of mac (ear-shaped orecchiette half shells in this case) are several small tomatoes, roasted with garlic and olive oil. It shouldn't work, but it does, giving the mac an acidic tang to play off and complement its cheesy one. Each bowl also gets a liberal sprinkling of breadcrumbs. But that's just a standard bowl. Breakside also lets you add additional ingredients, like andouille sausage, thick slivers of peppery bacon, and grilled asparagus, zucchini and broccolini. If you’re brave, you can order yours with all of the above. Just remind your eyes that they're not as big as your stomach and pace yourself.
Breakside Brewery, 820 NE Dekum St., 503.719.6475
Where can we find your favorite mac and cheese? (Have spoon, will travel.) Dish the details in the comment section.