(Almost) All the Mac and Cheese in New Haven
"Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh. and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth." - Forme of Cury, authored by the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II, 1300s
Thus begins the written history of the dish called makerouns, now better known as macaroni and cheese.
This sometimes humble, sometimes adventurous, always-comforting dish may have originated in Europe, but it has taken on a life and culture of its own upon its introduction to the United States. American mac and cheese can trace its lineage all the way back to the founding fathers, when Thomas Jefferson brought home sketches and recipes for “a pie called macaroni” from his travels in Europe.
My earliest memories of mac and cheese are making boxed Kraft Mac and Cheese when my mother wanted to take a break from cooking huge spreads of authentic Chinese food every night. Every time we celebrated birthdays at the local all-you-can-eat-buffet, I would fill my plate with mac and cheese.
My parents tried to nudge me towards taking more economically advantageous foods like the beef roast or carved ham, but I only had eyes for those elbow noodles swimming in their gooey golden sauce.
While my taste in food became more refined, my love of mac and cheese did not wane. In 2017, I made it my mission to try all the mac and cheeses in New Haven.
New Haven is a culinary mecca with a huge variety of restaurants, but the city is a manageable enough size where one mildly lactose individual can aspire to try the various mac and cheeses in all their cheesy diversity.
So what makes a good mac and cheese?
Mac and Cheese is steeped in Americana, comfort food culture, and memories of home, which puts objectively evaluating mac and cheese on the same level as attempting to rank the best hometown.
My personal ranking of the Mac and Cheeses of New Haven consists of scores in cheesiness, sauce texture, value, and overall flavor. In my eyes, a good mac and cheese has a sauce that is smooth and creamy, yet retains the stringiness characteristic of melted cheese.
The noodles are not overcooked, and hold a good amount of sauce inside during consumption. There can be additional textural or flavor additions such as breadcrumbs, meats, or veggies. Above all, a good mac and cheese should be in-your-face cheesy and full of comfort.
In the initial research phase, a spreadsheet was created with mac and cheese referenced from Yelp reviews, online menus, and surreptitious menu-peeking. The dishes were then consumed in no particular order, mostly based on which options were open, available, and convenient. The initial list consisted of 38 different restaurants, with another three added over the course of the ranking, and three that were identified towards the end of 2017 that haven’t made the list yet.
The time between mac and cheese consumption varied, as well as the conditions in which the mac and cheese were eaten. In fact, this is a pretty terrible scientific study as the rankings are entirely subjective and this study has not been peer reviewed.
In total, I evaluated 41 types of Mac and Cheese. In my pasta travels, I counted 18 uses of elbow pasta, six of Cavatappi, five of small shells, four of Fusilli, two of both Orechiette and Penne, and two that were non-classifiable.
Types of cheese included Gouda, Parmesan, Mozzarella, Cheddar, VT White Cheddar, Cabot White Cheddar, Amish Cheddar, Swiss, Goat cheese, Monterey Jack, Raclette, Comte, Gruyere, Schneblehorn, Chihuahua, Blue cheese, American, and the blend of six that Caseus lists.
There were add-ons: bacon, mushrooms, lobster, barbecued pulled pork, buffalo cauliflower and checken, chorizo sausage, spinach, bell peppers, green onion, corn, truffle oil, pesto, chili, braised beef. 20 varieties came with breadcrumbs. 18 were baked, nine came in a cast iron pan, and seven were baked, with breadcrumbs, in cast iron.
14 establishments called it Mac and Cheese. 11 of them listed it as Mac & Cheese. Eight said Mac n Cheese and eight said something totally different.
So What Did I Find?
There is a hierarchy of Mac and Cheese in New Haven. Here are my top 10:
1. Atticus: Truffle Mac & Cheese
The sauce was both creamy and stringy, with a cheesiness that was very present but not overpowering. The truffle added an additional depth of flavor, and the breadcrumbs were perfectly toasted and acted as textural complement to the rest of the mac.
2. Cave a Vin: Three Cheese Bacon Mac n’ Cheese
A standout mac and cheese from an unexpected competitor. You wouldn’t expect to find an amazing mac and cheese at a wine bar, but here we are. It’s hard to go wrong with bacon, and the gouda held its own as a distinct flavor.
3. Trinity Bar: Mac and Cheese
Yet another reason to mourn the (hopefully temporary) closing of Trinity Bar due to the fire last year. This dish was stuffed to the brim with melted, no messing around with cream or mornay sauces. All the peppers and other add-ins to the dish gave it a great flavor and cut the cheesiness with some zing and acidity.
4. Caseus: Mac & Cheese
Of course Mac & Cheese from the restaurant with its own cheese shop is going to be amazing. With the power of 6 different cheeses combined, it’s hard to argue with the sheer cheesiness. The rest of the elements are executed well into a very rich dish that’s dangerously cheesy. It might not be the cheapest mac and cheese on the list, but you’re at Caseus; you should be expecting to splurge on a cheese experience.
5. Da Legna: Crispy Mac ‘n’ Cheese Wedge
Whoever thought of deep frying mac and cheese was a genius. Whoever fries the mac and cheese wedge at Da Legna is an artist. A crispy, crunchy exterior gives way to a lava flow of cheese and pasta that would already be a great mac and cheese in its own right.
6. One6Three: Angel’s Cast-iron mac (seasonal)
You can watch this mac and cheese being baked in the pizza oven right in front of you if you sit at the bar. It’s hard to get any better than that. The sauce struck the right balance of creamy and stringy, and the breadcrumbs were well-seasoned and crunchy. \
7. Barracuda: Chorizo Mac & Cheese
Barracuda’s happy hour deals are some of the best you’ll find on great drinks and great food. This unpretentious mac and cheese has fusilli pasta coated with a layer of creamy, cheesy sauce. The chorizo adds a nice kick and complement to the cheese, and the whole dish pairs well with the happy hour drink specials.
8. Queen Zuri’s Mac & Cheese
Like most of the food at Queen Zuri’s, the mac and cheese is a solidly executed comfort food dish. The bright yellow color and the smooth simplicity of the sauce hearken back to the Platonic ideal of mac and cheese. It’s available as a side dish, and complements the more heavily spiced and flavored foods nicely.
9. Geronimo’s: Geronimo Mac N Cheese
If you’re looking for more than just two food groups to show up on your plate, it’s hard to go wrong with both the vegetarian and the lobster versions of Geronimo’s Mac N Cheese. The ingredients, veggies, spices, and cheese all lend themselves to a unique flavor that cuts the cloying cheesiness and adds some nutritional variety to the dish. They do a great job of balancing textures, ingredients, and flavors, all within the context of mac and cheese.
10. Rudy’s: Mac and Cheese
This is a mac and cheese designed to be eaten at the perfect temperature; when the sauce is no longer a mouth-burning molten liquid trapped in the confines of a ceramic bowl. Instead, once the mac and cheese is given time to cool, the sauce takes on a texture both creamy and stringy, leading one to muse on the physical nature of cheese sauce and how a material can stretch and flow at the same time.
At that temperature, you can also properly appreciate the flavor and the texture of the mac and cheese without burning all the tastebuds off your tongue.
1. Best Bacon Macs: Cave a Vin: Three Cheese Bacon Mac n’ Cheese; Barcade: Bacon Mac and Cheese; Prime 16: Mac and Cheese
2. Best Vegetarian: Atticus: Truffle Mac & Cheese; Trinity Bar: Mac and Cheese; Caseus: Mac & Cheese; One6Three: Angel’s Cast-iron mac; Rudy’s: Mac and Cheese; Geronimo: Geronimo Mac N Cheese; Barracuda: Vegetarian Mac & Cheese; 9th Square Market II: Vegan Mac & Cheese
3. Best Under $10: One6Three: Angel’s Cast-iron Mac (Entrée); Da Legna: Crispy Mac ‘n’ Cheese Wedge (side); Queen Zuri’s Mac & Cheese (side); Barracuda: Vegetarian Mac & Cheese ($5 during Happy Hour) & Chorizo Mac & Cheese ($5 during Happy Hour); Geronimo’s: Geronimo Mac N Cheese (side order); Elm City Social: Mac ‘N’ Cheese (side); John Davenport’s Lobster Mac (side); Barcade: Bacon Mac and Cheese (plate); Regal Beagle: Kids Mac and Cheese (plate)
4. Priciest: Box 63: Lobst’a Mac; Geronimo’s: Lobster and Chorizo Mac N Cheese; Caseus: Mac & Cheese; Harvest Lobster Mac & Cheese
Take-out mac and cheeses: Jordan’s Hot Dogs and Mac: Homestyle Mac and Cheese; Sandra’s: Baked Macaroni & Cheese; Ricky D’s Rib Shack: Mac-n-Cheese; Popeye’s: Mac and Cheese (side); 9th Square Market II: Vegan Mac & Cheese; Panera: Mac & Cheese
By the Pound: Good Nature Market; Elm City Market; Nica’s
Lobster Macs: Geronimo’s: Lobster and Chorizo Mac N Cheese; Box 63: Lobst’a Mac; John Davenport's: Lobster Mac; Clark’s: Mac and Cheese with Lobster; Harvest: Lobster Mac & Cheese
Flavored Mac and cheeses: Cask Republic: Pesto Mac and Cheese; Christy’s: Homemade Buffalo Mac
Vegan mac and cheese: 9th Square Market: Vegan mac and Cheese
Mac and Cheese on Hot Dogs: Jordan’s Hot Dogs and Mac: Mac Supreme; Jake’s Diggity Dogs: The Mac
Final Thoughts and Takeaways
Having tasted the mac and cheese variety that New Haven has to offer, the closing experience is a bittersweet one. I finally understand what it means to have eaten ‘enough’ mac and cheese, and have briefly touched the realm of ‘too much’ mac and cheese.
I hope this compendium helps you navigate your way through New Haven’s rich mac and cheese landscape and helps you create new mac and cheese memories.
Recommended reading: Garrett McCord and Stephanie Stiavetti’s Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese (2013).