Few foods have the stupid-easy appeal of mac ‘n’ cheese: The combination of fat and carbs, served hot and creamy, has almost medicinal powers, capable of soothing everyone from truculent children to hardened convicts. But take away the dairy and pasta, and the dish occupies much shakier ground, its entire existence rendered all but pointless.
That, of course, doesn’t prevent enterprising and/or foolhardy cooks from trying to conjure magic from oxymoron, particularly in a city where dietary restrictions are countered with usually well-meaning culinary innovation. It’s a mark of how far vegan, gluten-free dining has come in New York that you can find vegan, gluten-free mac ‘n’ cheese on both sides of the East River: at S’mac in the East Village and at Brooklyn Mac, a Greenpoint establishment that opened last December. Curious to see what the two could offer the lactose- and gluten-intolerant, we arranged a s’mac-down (sorry) to find out.
First we went to S’mac, where we ordered a Major Munch portion of mac. It cost $9.75, and the addition of gluten-free elbow macaroni and gluten-free cornflake breadcrumbs added another $3. When we opened its box, the mac glowed up at us with the chemical yellow sheen of reflective tape, looking less like actual mac ‘n’ cheese than a plasticine reproduction of it.
After the color, the second thing to hit us was the aroma: It was as if we’d cracked open a jar of coconut oil. Little wonder: The first ingredient in S’mac’s vegan bechamel base is coconut milk, followed by rice and potato flours, palm oil, organic palm shortening, Marmite, and salt and pepper. While we admired the restaurant’s dedication to finding an alternative to heavily processed vegan “cheese,” we wished they’d found a way to make the resulting concoction smell less like a vegan bakery or the curry sauce of the damned.
Undeterred, we dug in. While the gritty texture of the breadcrumbs put us in mind of aquarium pebbles and highway resurfacing projects, the noodles themselves were nicely cooked, firm to the bite. It was the ersatz dairy that was the problem: As its odor had tried to warn us, it tasted like coconut, weirdly sweet and without a hint of the rich, savory depths that should characterize mac ‘n’ cheese. Texturally, the sauce was creamy but a bit gloppy. The first — and last — few bites reminded us of clinical depression and retirement homes, so we gave up. The most positive thing we can say is that it was served hot.
Expectations completely obliterated, we went to Greenpoint to see what Brooklyn Mac had to offer. It’s a tiny place, more takeout window than restaurant, but the woman behind the counter kindly allowed us to sit in the window seat to eat their vegan, gluten-free mac ‘n’ cheese, which is made with Daiya vegan cheddar and mozzarella, quinoa noodles, and, again, those gluten-free cornflake breadcrumbs. Altogether, a medium portion cost $14.03.
Although we maintain a deep distrust of any vegan processed food that attempts to masquerade as dairy, our first bite of the mac made us, if not converts, then believers that the stuff does have its uses, particularly when it’s employed by someone who grasps the concepts of proportion and seasoning.
While Brooklyn Mac’s version had that same eerie glow as S’mac’s, that was where the similarities ended. The breadcrumbs here were crunchy instead of gritty, and complemented nicely by the cheese, which had been baked into a thick, satisfying crust. Although the noodles beneath it were slightly undercooked, the bechamel surrounding them was creamy and savory enough to make us question whether it was actually vegan. We don’t doubt that it was, but the fact that we even wondered was enough to clinch the victory Brooklyn Mac already had in its grasp. No retirement homes or roadway construction here, just the dreamy, fatty splendors that characterize the best comfort food, regardless of dairy content and wheat proteins.
77 Norman Avenue, Brooklyn
345 East 12th Street