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We’ve all been there. The potluck buffet is laden with mysterious meats, sad wilted salads, strange spreads and dips of unknown origin and then suddenly you spot it – the golden bubbly glow of that familiar cheddar-topped casserole, like a beacon welcoming you home. There, you think. There is something good to eat. Because, let’s face it. Even when macaroni and cheese isn’t great, it’s always really good.
Familiar, comforting and sustaining, it is a food that every generation can enjoy, from gap-toothed toddlers to dentally reinforced centenarians. Springing up at summer cookouts, football tailgates, après-ski events and Easter brunches, it is truly a dish for all seasons. Whether your tastes run plain or fancy, there is a macaroni and cheese out there for you. Here we’re presenting, in no particular order, a sampling of some of Evanston’s most tempting offerings.
The community said a tearful goodbye to Hecky Powell last May, but his wife Cheryl Judice keeps his memory alive by continuing to serve up some of Evanston’s favorite barbeque dishes, prepared using her mother-in-law’s top-secret recipes. Hecky’s classic macaroni and cheese features a velvety smooth sauce that’s rich and deeply satisfying, designed to feed the soul as well as the stomach. When pressed to provide details about the dish’s ingredients, Judice just laughs. “That I can’t do. I can feel Hecky telling me, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’” Macaroni and cheese, she says, is by far their most popular side dish, first choice among college students, vegetarians and even picky young eaters. The only complaint she ever hears is that it disappears too quickly. You’ve been warned. Order extra to avoid disappointment.
1902 Green Bay Road
Presented with little fanfare in a sturdy white ceramic bowl, there is an undeniably nostalgic appeal to this familiar old friend. The glossy orange sauce is slightly sweet with nutty overtones and well-balanced salinity. The macaroni noodle is firm. Velveeta is the star of this comforting stick-to-your-ribs dish, with cheddar, American slices and a dollop of Merkts providing piquant back up. Owner Pat Fowler says it’s a particular favorite with his youngest customers, but also a hit with the older set. “It’s not an elevated mac and cheese,” he notes, “but it works.”
750 Chicago Avenue
Soul & Smoke
I’m just having one taste, you think as you gaze longingly at the fat noodles, coddled in a creamy sauce dotted with flecks of cracked black pepper. Just one taste and then you’re hooked, because this is wildly addictive stuff. According to manager Sarah Arel, it’s a secret recipe perfected over several years by Soul & Smoke chef and co-owner D’Andre Carter. He combines cavatappi noodles with his signature three-cheese blend, then bakes an extra layer of cheese on top. Thank you, Chef! The flavor is smooth and rich with the seductive tang of grown-up cheese. If this side dish were a movie, it would be rated XXX.
1601 Payne Street
It’s a full-on cheese party at the Farmhouse with Gruyere, white cheddar, yellow cheddar and Muenster all jostling for control. Try to separate the playful corkscrew noodles from the cheese mélange and you’ll encounter the resistance of some seriously delicious strings. This is a belly-busting side dish that looks as good as it tastes. A quick trip under the broiler before it’s served adds a slight hint of brown, and a sprinkle of bright green parsley provides contrast.
703 Church Street
James Beard award-winning executive chef Debbie Gold gets the credit for the culinary masterpiece that is the Barn’s macaroni and cheese, according to manager Mark Loacker. Rich, decadent and generously portioned, her side dish is an indulgence of the highest order. Using torchio, a torch-shaped pasta noodle, Gold builds the sauce from a basic roux, adding Gruyere for nuttiness and cheddar for smooth texture. Herbed breadcrumbs toasted on top add a delightful crunch. This is the little black dress of macaroni and cheeses, a sophisticated offering equal to the fine dining experience that is the Barn.
1016 Church Street Rear
There is no mistaking the Peckish Pig’s boundary-bending macaroni and cheese for a simple side dish. This is a bridge too far, you may think as you study the substantial entrée containing cheesy pasta shells, shreds of tender duck confit and a sunny side up egg resting cheekily on top. Shaken a bit by the unnatural union of animal products, you bravely plunge your fork into the fray and are instantly rewarded by a delightful combination of flavors. The sauce, crafted from white cheddar and mozzarella, is smooth and creamy, the duck is savory and tender and the fried egg imparts next-level richness. A generous dusting of Parmesan on top evokes memories of the Italian grandma you never had. Sometimes more really is more.
623 West Howard Street