For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Don't look at me like that. I have a soft spot in my heart for Luby's the size of Texas. After any major trauma in my life, a dish of macaroni and cheese from Luby's (along with its liver and onions and fried okra) has bolstered me and given me a full belly and clear mind with which to plow ahead. That mac and cheese is what I want when I'm sick, when I'm sad, when I'm happy, even when I'm not particularly hungry. It's obscenely velvety, with a cheese sauce that clings to every square millimeter of its elbow macaroni and forms a protective layer of love around your heart. (To be fair, that could also be arteriosclerosis. But it's too good for me to care.)
This is the most expensive macaroni and cheese on the list at $8 (which is why it didn't place higher up), but at least it's worth it. BRC has one of the few baked mac and cheese dishes that's not overcooked, nor does it reveal a layer of grease and unemulsified cheese at the bottom (as so many baked mac and cheese dishes do). Instead, the cast iron skillet of mac and cheese is thick and creamy all the way through except for a crunchy layer of bread crumbs and slightly crisped pasta at the very top. Be careful, though: It takes a good five minutes to cool off enough to eat; I like to spend that time enjoying a pint from BRC's thoughtful selection of local brews.
3. Jus' Mac
I never expected to like a mac and cheese dish that's covered with Fritos and chili. I'm sort of a mac and cheese purist. But this is by far the best macaroni and cheese incarnation (in my own mind) that Jus' Mac serves. The Chili Cheese macaroni and cheese is a thing of beauty: The meaty homemade chili is wound through the creamy sauce and pasta in a way that combines the two yet keeps them separate enough not to be confused with chili-mac. A handful of Fritos on top works in combination with crunchy bread crumbs -- unnecessary in this context, but still delicious -- to provide a nice contrast of textures between the springy pasta and silky sauce, making for an altogether perfect dish.
The reason I love the mac & cheese at V&A so much is simple: It's simple. Chef Carlos Rodriguez explained to me that when the steakhouse first started coming up with mac & cheese recipes, everyone wanted to take the dish over the top: adding bacon, crabmeat, whatever they could gild the lily with. But Rodriguez was determined to keep it simple, and it paid off. The bechamel sauce only has three cheeses in it: American, white Cheddar and a pinch of Romano for saltiness. The plump cavatappi pasta is blanched to order and served in a white dish that makes it look, at first, as if it's been baked. But Rodriguez doesn't believe in baking macaroni and cheese: "It makes it tough," he says. So he just adds a sprinkle of crumbled croutons on top for texture and appearance. The result is the most perfectly unfussy mac & cheese in town.
UPDATE: In honor of earning a spot on the list, chef Carlos Rodriguez just Tweeted that today's Friday burger special is V&A's Mac & Cheese Burger. Get it while it lasts.
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SHOW ME HOW
This little side order of macaroni and cheese is not your typical version. Made with Gruyère, with a drizzle of truffle oil (just a faint drizzle; any more than that ruins a dish) finishing off the creamy pasta, Shade's mac & cheese is distinct, yet not pungent. The overall impression is of a dish rich but delicate in flavor. It usually accompanies the grilled pork chop, but you can order the Gruyère mac & cheese as an individual side dish, an appetizer or even as a dessert.