I don’t remember when the affair began but macaroni & cheese has been a big part of my life for most of my life. In the early years, I remember the real treat for me was when my mom (who has never been a mac & cheese fan) would pick up a can of Franco-American “Macaroni with Cheese Sauce.” This delicacy is no longer made but think of “macaroni” as long squishy hollow noodles and “cheese sauce” as cheese flavored water. Still, it drew me in.
I’m a fan of the blue box even though I think their packaging could use some help. I love Velveeta Shells & Cheese. I like Annie’s line of natural macaroni & cheese. And when I feel like going all nutty with my calorie intake, I’ve been known to eat Stouffer’s macaroni & cheese. Sometimes it’s the family size.
So when I saw that Raleigh was going to be hosting MacDown, a mac & cheese contest, as part of SPARKcon, a 4 day festival celebrating creativity, I saw the future and it was mine.
I quickly found out who was organizing it and sent a gentle letter of inquiry:
“So first, I read a tweet about the Mac Down coming to Raleigh. And then I see your email address listed for people interested in judging. Umm, hello? I’ve been eating and critiquing macaroni & cheese all my life. Not only is it my favorite food, not only am I a bottomless pit when it comes to eating it, but I also have very discriminate tastes with macaroni & cheese.
Please consider me for judgeship and make my dreams come true!!!”
So my dreams came true when I was selected. I asked for judgeship and I got it. I was one of 20 or so people selected to judge the entries from restaurants near and far and critique each entry in pursuit of the title of “the best.”
On Saturday, September 18th, I headed downtown to look for the blue tent with the bowl of macaroni & cheese on top. I met my fellow judges, including the mastermind behind Freezerburns.com, and the head honcho behind Raleigh Downtowner.
We were briefed on the tasting rules for our double-blind taste test of 12 entries of macaroni & cheese. My only question was could I get a second bite of the entries, you know, in case I needed it?
We were not told the restaurants who entered. We were not told what was in each of the entries. We were told to eat, take notes, and then assign a grade or rating to each entry. In complete silence.
NOTE: If you’ve ever met me, the only way you’ll get me to cooperate in complete silence is if you shove my mouth full of macaroni & cheese. So it all worked out.
I sample and savored each and every bite. I took notes. I compared. Then I narrowed it down to my top 3 choices. In addition to our notes and ratings, we had to decide if we were stranded on a deserted island and could only choose one dish, what would that dish be. That’s a pretty big decision for a mac & cheese lover like me. I rank my dishes 1, 2, and 3. I turned in my card sure that I had picked the winner.
I returned about 45 minutes later to hear the winners announced.
#3: Great choice but this was my second favorite. Creamy goodness topped with the exquisite taste of caramelized onions. I hope that left bigger and better dishes for the winning spot.
#2: Are you kidding me?
#1: Very traditional but nothing that knocked the socks off me.
So now. I’m hear to present to you my findings of the double blind taste test of the finest macaroni & cheese in town.
- firmness of noodles (nothing squishy)
- shape of the pasta (traditional elbow preferred but anything goes aslong as it holds the sauce)
- creaminess (a must)
- cheesiness (must be authentically cheesy, no canned cheese please)
- creativity (I love the traditional stuff but I’m open to new ideas)
First place: Woody’s At City Market
Woody’s is not the place you would go for health food. Oh sure, they offer salads and sandwiches. But the Fried Mac & Cheese balls (yes, you read that right) cannot be beat even with the grease dripping off of it. The outside of the ball is breaded genius. Just the right level of crispiness and flavor. The inside is pure heaven. Wide, ridged macaroni noodles in a heavenly creamy and cheesy sauce with just the palest hint of yellow.
A purist may say a fried ball is sacrilege but for me, the taste was spot on.
Second Place: Capital Club 16
So I originally had mentioned how I thought this one had come from a private club in town. I ranted “How dare they taunt us with deliciously creamy pasta with a subtle hint of cheese topped exquisitely with caramelized onions only to tell us that we can’t possibly eat it again unless we’re member?” The good news is there is a new game in town by the name of Capital Club 16. It’s a new restaurant downtown and now I know where my next night out will be.That mac & cheese sure was good. It was my first bite so the others had a lot to live up to.
Third Place: The Mint
Ahhh, The Mint. The beautiful restaurant where my husband and I shared a romantic evening out downtown. Had I known they served this dish, the evening would have been a whole lot more beautiful. I know this dish is not for everyone but as soon as I put the first bite in my mouth, I could taste the delicately flavored truffle oil lighting complementing the mini-penne pasta and creamy goodness. Truffle oil is unexpected and certainly not a taste for everyone. But for me? Perfect.
And now you have my complete rundown of what it’s like to be a macaroni & cheese judge. I just hope that being a founding judge of this contest gives me some sort of lifelong privileges. I’d like to return again. I’d like to judge again. I’d also like to accept any offers of fine dining establishments that care to offer me a bite of their rendition.
So, where are my mac & cheese lovers? How do you like it?