Whether it’s because noodles and cheese were made for each other, or because we need an emotional outlet in an age of anxiety, mac and cheese is everywhere.
The abundance is tremendously exciting, but it’s also daunting, because it’s hard to know when and where to take the mac and cheese plunge. After all, I suspect that for many the truest form of macaroni and cheese will always emerge from a box and our own saucepans, loosened up with a pat of butter and a splash of milk.
Anyway, I spent 12 days sampling 20 carefully selected macaroni and cheeses at Boise-area restaurants. And I’m not sure how many pounds I joyfully gained. But here are my favorites:
The King at Lucky Fins
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Lucky Fins, 801 W. Main St., Baked Lobster Mac & Cheese, $19.99
When I sat down to eat my 16th mac and cheese in 11 days, I didn’t imagine I could be impressed by the dish for the rest of my life. Then I took a bite of Lucky Fins’ cheesy lobster magic and fell in love all over again. This dish works on two levels: A thin cream sauce coating the cavatappi noodles is dramatically enhanced by a tangle of gooey, zesty cheese in the center. And just when you think things can’t possibly get richer – huge chunks of luxurious lobster! This mac and cheese is worth the $7 premium.
The Runner-Up at Bittercreek Alehouse
Bittercreek Alehouse, 246 N. 8th St., $9.75 (add chicken for $3.25)
Bittercreek’s mac and cheese is a miracle of modern physics. The noodles are coated in a smooth, glossy sauce, but pull on the sauce with a fork and it stretches like melted cheese. How does the cheese simultaneously inhabit two states of matter? I have no idea. But I do know that Bittercreek’s blend of gruyere, mozzarella and sharp white cheddar is unrivaled in texture and flavor.
The Trendsetter at Mad Mac
Mad Mac, 7709 W. Overland Road, $6.50 to $9.50
Mad Mac approaches the mac and cheese experience with striking reverence. The beloved food truck-turned-restaurant provides an array of hot sauces, breadcrumbs and crispy jalapeno bits to enhance your macaroni, much like the homemade sauces and salts Boise Fry Company provides for your spuds. The classic Mad Mac ($6.50) is fairly unremarkable, but the specialty toppings really kick things up a notch. I loved the Calavera Mac ($8.50), which adds pico de gallo and fajita-seasoned chicken thighs to a creamy cheddar jalapeño sauce.
The Celebrity at Bacon
Bacon, 121 N. 9th St., $13
Bacon’s The Mac — packed with mushrooms, herbs and, you guessed it, a gigantic quantity of sweet bacon — has been recognized as one of the best macs in America. But the most innovative touch might be the four slices of tomato baked into the cheese on top, which break up the melty crust in just the right way. Due to the immense amount of bacon, the bottom layer of noodles is more fatty than creamy, but when you walk into a restaurant named Bacon, I doubt you’ll complain about such matters.
The Inner Child at 10 Barrel Brewing Co.
10 Barrel Brewing Co., 826 W. Bannock St., $12
10 Barrel serves its bacon and jalapeno dish with a massive pile of potato chips. (That sound you just heard was the delighted screams of every 8-year-old in Idaho.) 10 Barrel’s zesty smoked gouda and cheddar sauce is part béchamel, part queso dip. They’ve cornered the market on extra-saucy mac and cheese, which will delight lovers of low-viscosity macaroni dishes, but I wish they could achieve this radical sauciness while keeping the pasta a little closer to al dente.
The Veggie Lovers Delight at Cloud 9 Brewery
Cloud 9 Brewery, 1750 W. State St., $11 (add $3 for grilled vegetables)
If you want to add some flavor to your mac and cheese without getting the meat sweats, consider Cloud 9’s meal with grilled vegetables. The mac and cheese itself won’t make your socks go up and down, but it shines beneath best-in-class breadcrumbs and tender grilled zucchini, pepper and onion.
The Luxury Sedan at Trillium Restaurant
Trillium Restaurant, 243 S. Capitol Blvd., $28
If you were an early investor in Bitcoin, you’ll love Trillium’s Cajun Shrimp Mac & Cheese. This beastly portion of seafood and pasta is topped with spicy asiago cream, cheese curds, peppers, onions and wild mushrooms. The Cajun mac delivered satisfying spice and tremendous flavor, but the shrimp was a little overcooked, and if you’re spending $28 on an entree, it might be time to think about steak.
The Instagram Model at Flatbread Neapolitan Pizzeria
Flatbread Neapolitan Pizzeria, 800 W. Main St. or 3139 S. Bown Way, $11
When it appeared on the table, Flatbread’s sizzling, parsley-flecked penne looked as beautiful as a sunset over Sicily. I enjoyed a honeymoon phase with the top layer of golden melted cheese and perfectly cooked pasta. But when I pushed deeper into the dish, I found a lot of butter and very little flavor. My advice: Don’t eat the cheese on top right away. Instead, incorporate some of the flavorful top layer into every bite.
The Cheese-less Wonder at BBQ4LIFE
BBQ4LIFE, 930 S. Vista Ave., $3 side of Mac n’ Cheese, $4 for Vegan
BBQ4LIFE imagines a utopian future where carnivores and vegans eat in harmony. The mac and cheese here couldn’t be more classic – gooey, mild and storybook yellow. The vegan and gluten-free offering relies on rice noodles and seasoned vegetable puree to bring forth those warm feelings of safety and comfort.
The Weekday Lunch at Whole Foods
Whole Foods Mac & Cheese Bar, 401 S. Boradway St., $8.99/lb
Whole Foods is at a clear disadvantage. While other restaurants can pull steaming mac and cheese directly from the oven, Whole Foods has to shovel its mac unceremoniously into a big silver pan, where it risks becoming soggy from its own steam as the day goes on. But Whole Foods performs impressively well despite those limitations. The Buffalo Chicken Macaroni & Cheese, doused in spicy wing sauce, revealed new dimensions in a béchamel.