Knockout Noodles: The Southern Mac & Cheese Store
I wonder if at some fateful moment during the design of the Southern Mac & Cheese Store, located on East Lake Street in the Loop, someone plunked down a Velveeta box—the way Frank Gehry might present a crumpled piece of paper, or Santiago Calatrava an elegantly twisting seashell—and said with unflappable conviction, "This is it." From the starbursted logo to the wall-to-wall bright orange paint, the place announces its singular intention to feed you mac & cheese.
That's bold. And if a restaurant chooses to hang its hat on the quality of its noodles, I'm intrigued. The "store" grew out of the success of The Southern Mac & Cheese food truck, which in turn is an offshoot of The Southern, a brick-and-mortar comfort-food establishment on North Avenue. It offers six "meaty" and six "veggie" mac & cheese varieties, as well as a few salads ("pretty healthy!" says the menu). The variables here are cheese types (cheddar, blue, gouda, etc.), meats (chorizo, bacon, pulled chicken) and, on the veg side, modifiers like green chile, truffle oil, and caramelized onion. I ordered one "meaty" and one "veggie," and walked away mostly content with the experience.
Interesting side note: My visit to the Southern Mac & Cheese Store this past Monday just happened to coincide with its launch of "mac Mondays": your first mac & cheese order on Monday is now only $5.
The New Mexican green chile mac & cheese ($6.99), made with pepper jack and cotija cheeses and topped with toasted breadcrumbs, had me off to a promising start. The cheese was sharp and creamy, the noodles had good bite, and I was pleasantly surprised by the heat of the green chile. The layer of toasted breadcrumbs and cotija cheese across the top of my bowl was crispy. I was drawn to the dish out of my love for New Mexican cuisine, and it did a pretty darn good job transporting me to the "flavor space" I was after.
I had some issues with the BBQ brisket mac & cheese ($6.99), despite how handsome this bowl was. (That's Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ sauce drizzled on top.) The cheddar cheese was nice and creamy, but it seemed to blunt any hints of meaty flavor from the brisket, which had to be excavated from the bottom of my bowl in order to try it. Texturally, the brisket was good; it was just hard to taste over the cheese and the heavy dose of syrupy-sweet BBQ sauce.
Next time I crave mac & cheese, I think I'll opt for a spicier meat like the store's chorizo or pepperoni mac, which may stand up better in a bath of melted cheese. Or I'll just revisit New Mexico.