Munchin’ with Michael: mac and cheese

Michael Barthelemy, Food Critic

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As the year progresses and we slowly transition into fall and eventually winter, comfort is paramount importance. As the temperature drops, you’ll see more and more sweatpants and hoodies make an appearance. 

Relaxation is critical in times like these, and food selection is no different. In my opinion, nothing feels better than eating a warm meal, under the blankets, watching The Office. Now, what better comfort food is there than mac and cheese? 

Now you may be thinking, isn’t a mac and cheese taste kind of one-dimensional? How different can one mac and cheese be from another? Well the answer is quite simply: very. There is so much variation within the realm of mac and cheese, whether it be creamy, coated with breadcrumbs or somewhere in between. With 1800 types of cheeses and endless texture combinations, no two macs are the same. 

For this tasting, I chose to go with the classic Wisconsin mac and cheese from Hecky’s Barbeque, Noodles & Company and Smylie Brothers Brewery. Through the three different styled restaurants the fluctuation of the dish should be on full display.

So without further ado, let’s get to munchin’.

Noodles and Company

Typically on Munchin’ With Michael, we try to stay away from going to chain restaurants. After all, it seems bogus to label the best food in Evanston to a place that isn’t specific to Evanston. But as most people know, Noodles & Company is notorious for their Wisconsin mac and cheese, so naturally I had to include it.

The second you get this bowl of mac and cheese, you know what you’re getting. The cheese is of the utmost creaminess and leaves the noodles marinating in it. Typically a creamier mac means there is a much more subtle cheese flavor, but Noodles is able to combat this reality by providing additional cheese on top of the pasta itself.

Complementing the cheese sauce there is a large amount of sprinkled cheese on top, which not only creates a greater emphasis on the flavor of the cheese but creates a diverse arrangement of taste as a result of using mixed cheddar on top.

The biggest knock I have on Noodles is the aftermath of eating the mac and cheese. After every bite the cheese sauce, being so thick, coates itself around your mouth and leaves you with a film of cheese that’s not ideal. Also I got it to-go and, being the environmentalist I am, I tried to recycle the package; it took some elbow grease to get the cheese off the cartridge.

Overall, the Noodles & Company mac and cheese is consistent. You know what you’re getting out of it, which makes sense because it is a chain restaurant, and it gets the job done.

Score- 3.9/5

Hecky’s

Hecky’s is the epitome of what a barbeque restaurant should be. Walking in, you are immediately hit with the aromas of barbeque sauce and rib racks. For a spot like Hecky’s, mac and cheese is a pivotal part of what they do. 

At first glance, you can tell there is a hard emphasis on the cheese flavor. Rather than keep a creamier sauce, the consistency of this dish is velvety. The cheese sticks to the noodles so much that by the time you’re done, there’s no residue on the dish! 

While I personally prefer a creamier sauce, Hecky’s makes it work. The cheese is able to become less of a sauce and act more as a glue for the dish, making eating it an ease.

As for the macaroni, only one word is needed to describe it: soft. The noodle falls apart in your mouth, and you can tell that the mac was fresh. While I would prefer a more solidified noodle, there isn’t much to complain about.

It’s an extremely moist dish, but that’s good. A dry mac and cheese is the opposite of appealing. If you learn one thing from Munchin’ With Michael it should be that food is never better dry. You need your mac a little moist if you want to truly have the best dish. 

Overall, this is an extremely solid mac and cheese. It’s nothing you’ll rave about for years to come, but it won’t disappoint. 

Score- 3.7/5

Smylie Brothers Brewery

Typically when I think of a brewery, I imagine the food as cheap pub food. Nothing gourmet because why should there be, you aren’t going to a brewery for the food. Smylie Brothers Brewery changes this persona though, starting with their mac and cheese.

At first glance, this mac and cheese got me excited. Rather than using the typical macaroni noodle, Smylie Bros. options for a shell shaped noodle, giving it an automatic leg-up. When it comes to reviewing food, the slightest change can make the biggest difference and in this case the change of noodle makes the biggest difference.

In the first bite, I was blown away. The pasta was thick and creamy, yet did not stray away from the flavor of the cheese. The presence of the cheese was there and created a near-perfect ratio. The cheese-sticking effect similar to that of Hecky’s was present, but rather than feeling more like a blend of noodles and cheese, you were able to tell what you were biting into.

Overall, Smylie Bros. blew me away. I knew it was a distinguished restaurant, but being a brewery, I wasn’t sure of what to expect. This was for sure the best dish of them all, and is a plate you’ll be writing home about.

Score- 4.5/5