Unless you’re a lactose-intolerant celiac, odds are you’ve got a soft spot for macaroni and cheese. Among the numerous dishes that make up the comfort food lexicon, the spruced up noodles hit that perfect balance of crisp crust and gooey interior, and the top renditions can be downright mesmerizing in their decadence. Few dishes are so easily associated with home, no matter where that may be, and New York City doesn’t disappoint when it comes to superlative dairy-laced carbs. As we’ve seen with so many other foods put through our cultural wringer, this melting pot has a knack for cultivating crossover-foods, and macaroni and cheese is no different. Dig around and you’ll find varieties with influences from Mexico, Jamaica, Germany, and beyond. Here are our 10 best.
10. S’Mac, 345 East 12th Street; 212-358-7917
Sarita and Caesar Ekya are pioneers of the single-item restaurant genre, which has gone on to spawn successes and failures based around everything from taquitos and bagel balls to poutine, but S’Mac still soldiers on. Their flagship East Village shop has doled out globally inspired mac and cheese in cast iron pans since 2006, including a Spanish version with manchego and fennel and a masala-fueled recipe channeling the flavors of India. But the soft elbows find their nirvana in the Buffalo chicken mac and cheese, a sultry mix of chicken, cheddar, and American cheese turned Halloween-orange thanks to a helping of tangy hot sauce.
9. Westville, 210 West 10th Street (with locations in Chelsea, East Village and SoHo); 212-741-7971
This local mini-chain run by the bespectacled Jay Strauss churns out a steady stream of solid American classics, and the mac and cheese is no exception. Springy spirale pasta is the perfect vehicle for the restaurant’s signature smoked Gouda béchamel, which envelops each tubular, twisted noodle like a rich, creamy hug. The oval baking dish arrives steaming, the top layer of noodles burnished and browned. It’s already plenty smoky thanks to the Gouda, but the option to add crumbly slips of bacon should be all but mandatory.
8. Mac Shack, 901 Fulton Street, Brooklyn; 718-230-0727
Featuring creative offerings with a bevy of Brooklyn tie-ins, Mac Shack embraces and honors its neighbors through the noble medium of noodles and melted cheese. Both the north (mozzarella, smoked gouda) and south (queso blanco, emmental) domains of King’s County get their due, while several types of curry and jerk spice versions pay tribute to the surrounding community. Jerked and smoked duck confit may not seem like a natural companion to the dish, but when it comes to mac and cheese, if you’re going to add mix-ins, they need to be flavorful enough to stand up to the barrage of dairy–especially when the dairy in question is pungent, mildly funky Fontina. The cheese’s earthiness combined with the chunks of spiced, smoky duck leg meat is irresistible.
7. Elbow Room, 614 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-230-4088
The flagship location of this enterprising fast-casual restaurant serves tarted up mac and cheese in high-gloss environs. Attached to the Barclays Center, sidling up to the counter means coming face-to-face with 12 different flavors of the comforting stuff, including a “brats and beer” version and one inspired by ingredients in margherita pizza. There’s also a lobster mac and cheese–no surprise there–but rather than the traditional of pairing the prized crustacean with cream and cognac, Far East flavors of lemongrass and ginger provide a unique kick. Elbow Room’s other Brooklyn location is a takeout counter squeezed into a space next to buzzy BBQ restaurant Morgan’s. Go figure: the two spots share a co-owner.
6. Queens Comfort, 40-09 30th Avenue, Queens; 718-728-2350
Dealing in black market comfort foods like atomic fireballs (deep-fried orbs of macaroni and cheese) and gravy-soaked disco tater tots, this polished canteen cooks up multiple variations on a cheese-covered theme. You’ll find meaty fillings like bacon and brisket as well as a cauliflower mac and cheese with fontina, cheddar, and Parmesan. Layered into ceramic baking dishes or served in voluminous bricks, the soft elbow noodles yield with each forkful. At its best, the crust sports a gnarled orange mane of caramelized cheese like some macaroni Donald Trump.
5. The Queens Kickshaw, 40-17 Broadway, Queens; 718-777-0913
Although the grilled cheese gets top billing at Ben Sandler and Jennifer Lim’s righteous Astoria café, the couple also spreads the cheesy gospel with hefty cubes of macaroni and cheese that are baked and then griddled, achieving an envious crust. Sure there are wonky green beans in the mix, but the combination of smoked mozzarella, Gruyere and cheddar lays a sturdy, stretchy foundation. A spoonful of creamy tomato sauce keeps things further lubricated. Time to get yourself elbows-deep in some elbows.
4. Gottscheer Hall Tap Room, 657 Fairview Avenue, Queens; 718-366-3030
Macaroni and cheese is an old dish–think Middle Ages old–and so it’s no surprise that the nearly 100-year-old Gottscheer Hall, which channels Teutonic traditions of yore, would be home to a rousing example of the Kraft. In keeping with the atmosphere, the noodles here are tender spaetzle. The chewy strips of egg pasta are boiled firm and hidden under a generous helping of Parmesan, cheddar, Swiss, and asiago cheeses. The menu lists the dish as “three-cheese spaetzle”, so why are there four cheeses? Maybe it’s time to put the 50,000 troops we currently have stationed in Germany on the case.
3. Murray’s Cheese Bar, 264 Bleecker Street; 646-476-8882
Murray’s Cheese, the city’s most recognized dairy dealer, opened this restaurant to experiment with the creamy contraband that they peddle on a daily basis. The signature mac and cheese finds standard elbows taking a pummeling from cheddar, Gruyere, Gouda, and Scharfe Maxx–a deep, dark, funked-up Swiss cow’s milk cheese that melts like a dream. In a completely rational move, another version pairs sharp, creamy blue cheese with nubbins of chewy bacon. Both get a scattering of crunchy fried onions, and both do a fine job of satiating curd obsessives.
2. Landin Mac & Cheese, 705 Melrose Avenue, Bronx; 347-726-4217
Macaroni and cheese is a family affair for Sergio Sanchez and his two sons, who man the counter at this takeout restaurant specializing in the creamy pasta dish. The menu also features a roster of Mexican standbys (Sanchez hails from Morelia, Mexico) and pizza, but the noodles are most noteworthy. Each batch is made to order from tender elbow noodles, whether choosing from a set menu item like cheddar and Muenster with barbecue sauce or a vegetarian version with broccoli and mushrooms. Creative patrons can choose to make their own, but no matter what you choose you can expect a broiled, shatter-crisp exterior hiding a molten sea of cheese and grain.
1. Milk Truck, check @milktrucknyc for location; 646-233-3838
Here’s another grilled cheese operation putting out macaroni and cheese that’s better than the main event, like a bass player who eclipses the band’s frontman. Milk Truck’s made-to-order mac and cheese oozes with aged gruyère, cheddar, asiago, and mozzarella cheeses; is coated in bechamel; and is topped with golden breadcrumbs. Bowtie pasta provides a tender chew, the wide ends of the noodles slicked with sauce. The cheesy vendor found itself in hot water this summer after firing an employee for tip-shaming advisory firm Glass Lewis after they placed a $170 order and left no gratuity. Whatever your opinion, if ever there were a macaroni and cheese that could unite enemies, it’s this one.