Of all the bedrock comfort foods, it’s the one that’s most uniquely Wisconsin, thanks to the heavy dose of dairy that makes up the meat of its recipe. But among Madison restaurants, macaroni and cheese is a far cry from ordinary.
Situated within a couple hundred yards of each other on the Capitol Square, a trio of downtown eateries have placed their own creative stamps on this oh-so-satisfying staple.
At Graze, executive chef Tory Miller composed a mac and cheese designed to echo the soul food of the south, but his recipe eschews the typical baked-brick-casserole approach. Instead, the sharp taste of ten-year-aged Hook’s cheddar anchors the sauce, while the macaroni itself is dusted with finely ground breadcrumbs, like a toasted, buttery sprinkle of snowflakes. Carnivores can punch it up an extra notch with the addition of smoky pulled pork.
Patrons who order the mac and cheese at The Coopers Tavern (pictured above) might be initially flummoxed to see the pasta sidled up against and surrounding a hefty cube of Guinness-glazed pork belly. A few bites in, they’re more likely to appreciate the way the dry, sharp taste of the Dubliner cheese melds with the sweet and smooth flavor of the glaze. “Our approach is to pair the familiar with the unfamiliar,” says executive chef Tim Larsen. Given that the dish has been featured on The Cooking Channel, we’d say mission accomplished.
And then there’s the mac at The Old Fashioned, where owner Tami Lax‘s approach puts a local-ingredient spin on the traditional dish her mom used to serve during her childhood in Green Bay. This is a saucy mix of spirals, blending Wisconsin cheddar with the state’s own Parmesan-style cheese, SarVecchio, and pairing it with slices of ring bologna. It’s among The Old Fashioned’s top sellers, and the dish is also extremely popular with the younger set. “Kids come here and eat it, and then their mom tries to make macaroni and cheese out of the box at home,” says Lax. “They don’t like it. They say, ‘We want the real stuff.'”