All the restaurants putting out mediocre mac should take a page from The Dawson’s book: When it comes to creating a memorable rendition of this iconic dish, texture is just as critical as flavor. The Pork Mac & Cheese here has texture in spades, beginning with al dente orecchiette and a cheese sauce, anchored by aged cheddar with an almost-tacky quality, reminding us of an all-grown-up Velveeta Shells and Cheese. Then, three kinds of pork (smoky shoulder, bacon and sausage), each contribute its own particular note of fattiness and bite. The brunch version takes the textural riot a step further, topping the dish with a yolky fried egg. N.B.: The leftovers (and there will be leftovers; it’s a hulking helping) have opened our eyes to the wonders of cold mac and cheese.
Ordering a mac and cheese entree at one of the city’s best steakhouses might seem blasphemous, but trust us: One bite of this guy, served in a darling little Staub casserole, will quash your beef FOMO. It’s composed of small, delicate shells (made at sister restaurant RPM Italian) draped in a dreamy sauce of truffle-laced cheddar and fontina flecked with hen of the woods mushrooms and salty-sweet morsels of Hobbs slab bacon. For a final flourish, there’s a dusting of golden breadcrumbs and a sculptural crown of crispy hen of the woods; altogether, it’s a seriously luxurious mac.
When a bistro happens to be appended to a top-flight cheesemonger, it’s only natural for diners to set their mac and cheese hopes high. Luckily, cozy Bar Pastoral doesn’t disappoint. In keeping with the seasonal ethos here, the dish’s exact composition changes frequently, but count on a blend of podda and paesanella cheeses, a combo that makes for a sauce at once funky and assertively tangy. Recent iterations have included a leek version as well as a red onion and roasted tomato one that calls to mind a super savory onion gratin.
In a sea of shells, elbows and cavatappi, this Streeterville newcomer swims against the current, passing up traditional pasta to build its mac and cheese on a foundation of house-made spätzle. With their nooks and crags, the tender little dumplings prove an ideal vehicle for catching up every last bit of the luscious fontina mornay that pools beneath them. Slivers of bacon and garlic breadcrumbs provide pleasant flavor and crunch assists—but a base mac this good hardly needs any help at all.
There’s not a whole lot to the macaroni and cheese at Lakeview’s long-running farm-to-table cafe; it’s really just pasta shells and cheese sauce finished with a single fanciful touch, a shower of crumbled potato chips. But the sauce—made from cheddar, Swiss and the too-often-overlooked, eminently meltable butterkase—is just right, velvety and tangy, and it turns out that subbing in salty, crunchy chips for de rigueur breadcrumbs is totally genius. In other words, the mac here is the archetypal comfort food, oh-so-simple and yet completely soul satisfying.
While most Chicago BBQ joints relegate mac and cheese to the sides department, the smarties at Chicago Q have made it a main event, serving it up family style (seriously, an order is basically big enough to satiate a family of four) in a cast-iron skillet. The standard model comprises perfectly cooked corkscrew pasta coated in a stick-to-your-ribs sauce of cheddar and Monterey Jack, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and smoky-sweet rub, and given a quick blast under the broiler. We suggest you up the ante with an add-in or two; the crisp-edged but juicy burnt ends aren’t a bad place to start.
The over-the-top burgers at Avondale’s whiskey and metal mecca are among the city’s best loved, so it’s saying something that the Build Your Own Mac & Cheese here enjoys a dedicated fan base of its own. The appeal of the dish lies in its blank canvas quality: A bed of elbow noodles tossed in a fairly neutral sauce of butter, cream and cheese awaits your add-in inspiration. Feeling feisty? Order up jalapeno and andouille sausage. Or go for a classic salty-sweet flavor combo with caramelized onion and bacon. With around a dozen mix-ins to choose from, you can eat a whole lot of mac and cheese before you’ve exhausted the potential combinations.
The macaroni and cheese matches the vibe at this Ukrainian Village neighborhood spot: Both temper comfort with a dash of style. In the case of the mac, the kitchen dispenses with the usual cheese roster, instead coating cavatappi coils in a piquant sauce of gorgonzola, chevre, Parmesan and mascarpone cut through with a bit of bright basil. The finishing touch is a golden panko crumb topping applied with a restrained hand, so that it lends a nice crunch without dulling all that cheesy magnificence.
As if lobster-enriched mac isn’t elaborate enough, the Cold Water Lobster Mac and Cheese at Andersonville’s cozy Irish pub comes bedazzled with roughly as many embellishments as a Bob Mackie gown. Along with the headline ingredient—which is layered generously over a base of cavatappi—there are mushrooms and diced tomatoes, a mildly sweet cornbread crust and truffle-laced cheddar cream. The cumulative effect is an almost comically decadent dish—but then mac and cheese is hardly virtuous even in its most stripped down form, so why not go all in?
To say that this playful modern Korean spot takes a few liberties with one of our nation’s most cherished dishes is a bit of an understatement. The Belly Mac comprises a tangle of hefty udon noodles tossed in a rich Thai curry sauce and tucked beneath a thick blanket of melty, biting cheddar. On the page, it’s a combo that sounds weird—and it kind of is, actually. But trust us, this quirky mac has a moreish quality that sneaks up on you, so that when you take a break from counting off the reasons it shouldn’t work to glance down at the bowl, you’re likely to find you’ve devoured it.
We like the John Hughes Mac and Cheese—classic elbows in a coffee stout-spiked smoked gouda sauce—at this Lakeview beer and comfort food spot well enough. But the Rory Calhoun takes the mac game to the next level, augmenting the basic Hughes formula with slices of garlicky Hungarian sausage and a hearty lashing of chopped Nueske’s bacon. (A raft of add-ins like ham and BBQ tofu are available too; we’re sweet on peas, because adding them makes us feel somewhat healthy.) It’s a super smoky, super substantial dish worthy of Abe Froman himself.