If you know nothing else about me, you know I love macaroni and cheese. Seriously. I would give you my kidney for a quality bowl of mac and cheese. My favorite mac and cheese IN THE WORLD was made and served by the special education class at Greenville High School every Wednesday and you had to get there early before they sold out. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying (and failing) to find a bowl of mac and cheese that measured up. Enter the Charleston Mac Off… a macaroni and cheese festival/competition where you get to sample mac and cheese from some of the best restaurants in Charleston. Imagine my delight.
Ben and I bought the VIP package, which included admission and 25 tickets a person. The website said they were going to have 25 different restaurants, but they only ended up having 22, so we had some extra tickets. After we visited about half of the restaurants, we both started getting full and instead of getting a sample each, we started splitting the samples, so we ended up with a bunch more extra tickets. Luckily, they had drink vendors there, so I could drown my sorrows about all these extra tickets. My favorite drink was the Firefly Arnold Palmer, which was dangerously delicious (yay for not being DD!). In the future, I probably would have only gotten one VIP package and just bought general admission for Ben, as I think this would have been a more cost-effective option (plus you can buy more sample tickets as needed once you were actually there).
Here are the restaurants we sampled: The Roost, Graze, Coleman Public House, Duke’s, Magnolia’s, Castaways, The Tomato Shed, Crave, Angel Oak Restaurant, Sesame, Poogan’s Porch, Cherrywood BBQ & Alehouse, J Paulz, B Gourmet Catering, Smoky Oak, New Moon Pizzeria, Mad River, The Shelter, possibly more, but I can’t remember….Of all of the restaurants there, I’d say Graze, Crave, and Coleman Public House were the best.
Graze was definitely my favorite of the night. Their “Southern Supper” white cheddar mac and cheese with pulled pork and collard greens was outstanding, and it really stood out in the sea of cheesy noodles that was the Mac Off. Although many of the restaurants were doing some kind of pork-related mac and cheese (bacon, ham, pulled pork, etc), Graze was definitely the best. No contest. I obviously wasn’t the only person who thought they were outstanding, as they won the Critic’s Choice Best Mac and Cheese. When Groupon offered a dinner deal at Graze a couple days after the Mac Off, I didn’t hesitate to purchase it so I could taste that delicious mac and cheese again. I’ll let you know how the rest of their menu measures up in a future post!
Coleman Public House was serving up smoked gouda mac and cheese with pecan-smoked bacon and white truffle oil. I’m usually hesitant about things with truffle oil because the flavor can be so overpowering, but this mac and cheese was awesome. All of the flavors really complemented each other, and I loved that it was super creamy. They also used those twirly cavatappi noodles, which I love. I know they didn’t win anything at the Mac Off, but they were voted “Best Coma-Inducing Skillet of Cheesy Goodness” on the City Paper’s Best of Charleston 2012 list.
Crave’s Aged Cheddar Mac and Cheese, topped with parmesan cheese, was definitely the creamiest of the entire event. It also had the cheesiest flavors and I think this was the best traditional mac and cheese I’ve had at any restaurant in Charleston. They also won the People’s Choice Best Tasting Mac and Cheese award for the third year in a row this year, so I think it’s safe to say that they know what they’re doing. I was also really impressed that they were actually cooking their mac and cheese on-site, instead of bringing it already cooked like most of the others.
There were a couple restaurants whose mac and cheese was so bad that I’ll never eat there. At the top of this list was Angel Oak Restaurant, and The Roost. Angel Oak’s tasted like it had peanut butter in it for some reason, which was strange. The Roost’s macaroni was really dried out, so that wasn’t good (especially since this was the first one I tried that night). All of the other restaurants there ranged from “Good” to “Okay,” and basically weren’t worth mentioning, in my opinion. The only other restaurant to get some kind of honor was the Tomato Shed for “Best Use of a Local Ingredient” in their “Shrimp Club Mac & Cheese” (local shrimp, tomatoes, dill, goat cheese, bacon, and something called “bloomy-rind cheese”). I thought it was ok, but was a little too fishy tasting for my liking. J Paulz was there with their truffled mac and cheese, which is really good, but I’d had it before so it wasn’t really that exciting.
The most creative mac and cheese was the Mac and Cheese cupcake from B Gourmet Catering. It was a mini-muffin sized cupcake made with cheddar and breadcrumbs and topped with a pimento cheese “frosting,” and sprinkled with bacon. I thought it was good, albeit a little too greasy. They also had some pretty cool entertainment, a DJ, followed by a live band, bull riding, and a cornhole contest and “fire hula-hooper” (no actual fire that I saw). They also had one of those new VW Bugs there that they may have been raffling off, but I was too focused on eating Mac & Cheese to pay attention.
Next time I’ll probably bring my own chairs (seating was hard to come by as the night went on), and make a whole night of it. It was way better at the Mount Pleasant Park than when they held it at the bus shed downtown, so I hope they hold it there again. Overall I’d say this was the best food event I’ve ever attended and you can bet I’ll be there next year!