$5 vs. $26 macaroni and cheese in Des Moines: What's the best bang for your buck?
Des Moines Register reporters try to find the best bang for your buck mac and cheese in town. Des Moines Register
There's nothing quite like the ooey, gooey, stretchy goodness of macaroni and cheese.
It's a decadent American dish that can be whipped up in the most humble of homes. Whether it's a 50-cent box from the grocery store or a family member's famous recipe, the cheese-stained elbow noodles dream up nostalgic tastes of TV dinners or a painstaking Thanksgiving meal.
But in Des Moines, what restaurant makes this culinary classic the best bang for your buck?
Inspired by Buzzfeed's "Worth It" videos, we tried three restaurants at different price points to determine where you should spend your disposable cheese money.
Soul Spice is Des Moines' latest comfort food restaurant, complete with all the helpings you would expect like greens, chicken and waffles and its own special "Mac n' Cheese."
The macaroni and cheese has "a little this and a little that," said Brian Spicer Sr., owner of Soul Spice.
Rather than use a big pan, Spicer said, he prefers smaller pans to better heat and care for the macaroni. The cheese is also finely sliced to better melt over the noodles than large chunks.
Spicer uses familiar ingredients: milk, pepper, Velveeta and a cheese mix to throw on top of the macaroni. When the Velveeta cheese melts, he twists and turns it and coats it with another layer of cheese.
The dish takes between 25 to 30 minutes to make and comes with a nice crust on top. Think of your mom's macaroni and cheese, but better (don't tell her we said that).
Price: $5 for a large side.
Address: 910 E. Hull Ave.
If you're looking for people who really know cheese, the Cheese Bar is the place to go.
The "Cast-Iron Mac & Cheese" is the drool dripping, crunchy and creamy macaroni and cheese that provides a heaping of comforting-yet-interesting textures with each bite.
The macaroni and cheese recipe was perfected at the Cheese Shop years ago and was later brought to Cheese Bar, the owners' full-scale restaurant.
"It's a simple mac and cheese, but when you make simple food, you have to make the best of everything," said Brett McClavy, chef and partner.
A traditional mornay is used for the cheese sauce base, along with Frisian Farms Gouda — a young cheese with a stretchy texture when melted — and Hook’s Four-Year Cheddar, a classic Wisconsin Sharp cheese.
The chef takes a "screaming-hot pan," 500 degrees, and puts the sauce and cheese together with Italian pasta.
After adding breadcrumbs on top, it comes together perfectly with each bite. Burnt cheese on the bottom and bread crumbs on the top provide a nice crust. As for the cheese itself, this dish provides an Instagram-worthy "cheese pull" and is a blend of a sharp tang with a comforting creamy taste.
It's rich and could be shared between two people (if you're willing to split it).
Also, who knew a cast-iron pan was the best serving dish for macaroni and cheese? The dish was delightfully warm the entire sitting, tasting like it just got out of the oven even 10 minutes later.
Price: $10 for a full size.
Address: 2925 Ingersoll Ave.
For a taste of New England in Iowa, there's a light and zesty lobster mac and cheese available at Americana that upgrades the homey dish to a luxury.
Americana is a downtown Des Moines staple, and the food and drinks come with a picturesque view of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park right across the street.
You could add bacon or ham to mac and cheese for some hearty protein, but lobster adds a lighter touch to a dish that typically leaves you napping.
"When we were looking at the menu, we wanted something new," said Chase Johanson, sous chef.
Lobster stock is cooked with a Gruyere and cheddar cheese sauce, tomato paste and a tomato marmalade for a more bright and citrusy taste.
As for the highlight of the dish, the lobster is butter poached and served in chunks with the meal.
Everything is mixed together with cavatappi noodles and topped with lemon, Parmesan and dill to compliment the seafood taste. And to top it all off, a fist-sized piece of garlic bread comes with the pasta.
It's the opposite of the thick macaroni and cheese that people associate with their grandmother's house. The tomato marmalade brings zest while the lemon and dill help the lobster to shine rather than overpower it with the cheese sauce.
Address: 1312 Locust St.
So what's the best bang for your buck?
Each restaurant has its own unique take on macaroni and cheese that's any diner's delight. But the best bang for your buck is at Cheese Bar, where for $10 you get a carefully prepared dish that's balanced with every bite.
While the chef calls it a simple macaroni and cheese, the proper ingredients like the tang of the four-year cheddar and the creaminess of the Gouda make it a cheese connoisseur's delight. The bread crumbs and burnt cheese also bring a needed crunchy texture, and the noodles were al dente, making the dish nice and firm rather than too mushy.
Now, can we start serving everything in a cast-iron pan?
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