Food Nation

The Rise of Single-Dish Restaurants in America

Like it or leave it, restaurants specializing in macaroni and cheese -- that ultimate "white people comfort food," as my baffled brown friends call it -- are becoming increasingly popular across the United States. From Connecticut's J.B. Mack, which bills itself as "America's 1st Macaroni and Cheese Restaurant," to the world-famous S'MAC in Manhattan, the concept has never been more popular.

Such is the case with the subject of this week's cafe review, Jus' Mac. The mac 'n' cheese mecca on Yale has been such a success since opening in the Heights in October 2010, it's already opened a second location in Sugar Land. It's also added more than just macaroni and cheese to its menu: The restaurant offers an assortment of salads and panini, but still specializes in its namesake cheesy pasta dish.

Single-dish restaurants like this are on the rise in America after years of chains like The Cheesecake Factory and TGI Fridays, which try to cram roughly a thousand dishes onto each menu. In an article from Chow last year, Rebecca Flint Marx took a look at why these "one-trick ponies--places that specialize in one dish, albeit with multiple variations--aren't going away."

In the article, Marx argues that these single-dish-focused restaurants "first escaped the paddock in the early days of cupcake mania," leading to a proliferation of places like Medium Rare in Washington, D.C. that only serves steak (and second helpings of more steak if you're still hungry) or The Meatball Shop in New York City that only serves -- you guessed it -- meatballs.

You see places like this in Houston, too. My favorite is Bun Bo Hue Duc Chuong II, which serves only bun bo Hue, or beef stew in the style of Hue province in Vietnam. You can order a small or a large size, and doctor it up with the fish sauce, red chile oil or fermented shrimp paste on your table.

It's the Houston example of this phenomenon that I think more closely mirrors the reason single-dish restaurants are finally gaining broad acceptance: This is what it's like throughout large portions of the rest of the world. In Vietnam, for example, restaurants and food stands specialize in one dish and nothing else. This carries over to American Vietnamese restaurants, too, where it's accepted mantra that you always order the dish the restaurant is named after: If it's called Pho One, you order the pho.

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Katharine Shilcutt