School is back in session. The weather is cooling off -- sort of.
Summertime cravings for poolside barbecue, or late-night fast-food runs, are giving way to a more laid-back desire for comfort food.
When it comes to warming your tummy, macaroni and cheese is in a league of its own. This most basic concoction of pasta and cheese may have its origins in ancient Arabia, China, Greece or Rome -- historians can't agree -- but by modern definition macaroni and cheese is very much an American dish.
It holds an ooey, gooey place of honor in Southern cuisine, soul food and chuck wagon-style chow. And, as I found out, a lot of North Texas restaurants are experimenting with new ways to present the dish.
At Grady's Restaurant in Fort Worth, for example, green chile macaroni with a blend of Monterrey Jack, asiago and goat cheese is a popular side item in the fall, and steak fingers with mac and cheddar cheese are a hit with children. Those who can't eat everything on their plates are encouraged to take leftovers home.
"If you make it one day, the next day it's going to be even better," said Grady's proprietor and cowboy chef Grady Spears. "After the liquid starts to evaporate, those ingredients come together. It's such a simple American comfort food. There's not much in it but pasta, heavy cream, cheese and bread crumbs. I don't know how you could mess it up."
While store-bought varieties of macaroni and cheese are fine, and often a favorite among kids, many area restaurants are doing some neat things with this treasured piece of foodie culture -- and they deserve recognition. In most cases, their handiwork relies on real cheese, instead of the mysterious orange powder found in store-bought versions, and a reasonable amount of salt added for flavor, instead of gobs of sodium used by mass producers for preservation.
During the past couple of weeks, I visited some of these noodle-rific institutions, and compiled a subjective and hardly scientific list of menu items that I thought were winners. For fun, I named this experiment the Golden Noodle Awards.
I checked out some places alone and on occasion enjoyed mac 'n' cheese with a frosty adult beverage. For other visits, I lunched with a workplace colleague, or brought along my wife, 15-year-old daughter or 9-year-old son -- to give the experiment a family vibe.
Some were high-end eateries, others bargains.
All these dens of deliciousness were dine-in places, but they also offered carryout. That was important to the experiment, because mac 'n' cheese is one of those foods a busy person likes to grab on the way home. It's an easy, cheesy way to fill the family's collective belly full of warm gooeyness, before settling down for a night of television, board games or whatever your tribe does together while eating comfort food.
Golden Noodle, Most Original
2443 Forest Park Blvd., Fort Worth
Grady Spears' latest restaurant, which specializes in Texas comfort food, has been open fewer than two years in Fort Worth's Park Hill neighborhood south of downtown. But Spears has favored serving mac 'n' cheese as a cowboy cuisine side dish as his many restaurants -- ncluding Reata, which he co-founded -- for nearly two decades.
Although Spears' cooking pays tribute to the American West, he acknowledges that mac 'n' cheese wasn't necessarily carried around on chuck wagons.
"They didn't have fried chicken either," he quipped.
But today, mac 'n' cheese is a tasty pairing with many of the entrees Spears likes to serve, namely large cuts of beef and chicken.
This football season, Spears -- a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fans -- will offer dishes such as grilled chicken stuffed with chorizo and Texas cheeses, with green chile mac and cheese, to fans at Houston Texans games.
In Fort Worth, when Grady's re-opens Tuesday after being closed for a week of remodeling -- including a new hardwood floor -- green chile mac 'n' cheese will be on the menu, as it is every fall, Spears explained. Unlike other cooks, he prefers the larger penne pasta, which he said holds its shape better than shells or elbow macaroni.
"The pasta has to hold well," he explained, "because you're really cooking it twice."
One afternoon last week, Spears demonstrated how he likes to make the dish. He effortlessly tossed a few handfuls of cooked penne pasta into a mixing bowl, along with pureed and chopped poblano peppers, heavy cream and shredded asiago and Monterey Jack cheese. He then coated the top with bread crumbs, and blasted it in an oven for about 10 minutes.
The result was an intensely flavorful and pine forest-colored pasta dish.
What else: Grady's is open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
More: 817-922-9980; gradysrestaurant.com
Golden Noodle, Best Casserole
101 S. Oak St., Roanoke
If folks had eaten like this in the Wild West days, there would've been a lot less gunfightin' and lot more nappin'. Cowboy Chow's version of mac 'n' cheese doesn't look all that big, but it will fill you up.
Cowboy Chow is a tribute to an Old West saloon. On the dark, wooden bar, there are five 10-gallon jars of bourbon, each being infused with a special ingredient -- peaches, vanilla beans and even bacon (a top seller). Another jar is filled with a golden tequila soaking in a colorful variety of peppers.
My son and I stepped in from the sunlight, and I asked the host if we could sit at the bar, which was otherwise empty. It was midafternoon on a Sunday, and a NASCAR race was on a nearby television.
Our server was a young man, maybe 18, who suggested a pure cane-sugar root beer for my boy. The menu said the soft drink was "2 1/2 bucks." I ordered a $2 Pearl Light in a can and glanced at the menu -- and near the bottom there was this item: Bacon and Texas toast crusted mac and cheese casserole - 10 bucks.
I asked the server if the macaroni and cheese was homemade, not expecting a serious reply, but instead he perked up. "It's not all homemade, but it has some of the highest-quality ingredients of anything on the menu. The guy who runs this place buys expensive pasta. He uses the best cheeses."
We ordered two casseroles, and about 10 minutes later our meals arrived from the kitchen in piping hot, 6-inch iron skillets. Little oven mitts covered the skillet handles.
Large crumbs of Texas toast and small bits of bacon blanketed the dish. My son and I grabbed forks from a communal pickle jar and dug in. As soon as the utensils pierced the toasty crust, a bubbling undersea of yellow-orange goodness was revealed.
The noodles were typical elbow macaroni, but perfectly done -- not Italian-style al dente , but firm enough to keep their shape. Ah, and the cheese sauce was spiced with black beans and pico de gallo.
For me, it was love at first bite. My son gave it a thumb's up, too. He isn't a huge fan of onions, and hesitated to take a bite after I explained the ingredients of pico de gallo, but ultimately -- like me -- he ate it all.
What else: Macaroni is also sold as a $3 side. Cowboy Chow, which has a sister location in Deep Ellum in Dallas, is run by the same people who brought us Twisted Root Burger Co. In Roanoke, hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
More: 817-491-4442; www.cowboychow.net
Golden Noodle, Best Supporting Role
Mac's An American Grill
6077 Interstate 20 Frontage Road (west of Little Road), Arlington
Mac's is perhaps best known for its steaks and seafood, but it also has a nice lunch menu that includes sandwiches and burgers. Seven-cheese macaroni and cheese is offered as a side item for $3.75. But if you order a sandwich, you can sub the same portion of mac 'n' cheese for the fries, and it'll only set you back $1.60.
I ordered an oyster po-boy, which arrived on its own plate. In a boat-shaped ramekin was about 7 ounces of bubbling-hot macaroni and cheese. The sandwich and side cost $9.95.
The mac 'n' cheese had elbow macaroni and a delightfully complicated combination of cheeses: sharp and mild cheddar, Jack, Parmesan, muenster, Gouda and Velveeta. The top was lightly dusted with panko bread crumbs.
When the dish arrived at the table, it looked loose and I wondered if it would be too creamy. I soon realized it was just dang hot! As it cooled, the concoction solidified into a perfect gel of Easter-yellow porridge.
My work colleague agreed. He ate the macaroni as a side dish with a blackened chicken sandwich (also $9.95 for the sandwich and side of mac) -- and scraped the bowl clean.
What else: Mac's is a local joint, with locations in Fort Worth and Colleyville. In Arlington (visited for this report), lunch hours are 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and brunch is 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday. Dinner is served nightly.
More: 817-572-0541; www.macsteak.com
Golden Noodle, Kids' Choice
6000 Rufe Snow Drive, North Richland Hills
Hands down, my kids' favorite place to eat macaroni and cheese is Boston Market, even though the chain restaurant eschews traditional elbow macaroni in favor of spiral pasta, each about 2 inches long. "It's really orange and curly, and it has lots of cheese," my teenage daughter says. It's really easy on the wallet, too. We ordered a to-go meal for five, although there are only four of us, and brought home 1 1/4 rotisserie chickens, two large containers of mac and cheese, three other large sides and five pieces of cornbread for $30. I think Boston Market mac and cheese is a bit ordinary -- a bit salty, with a hint of mustard embedded in the orange goo -- but it's undeniably good.
The cheese strongly resembled Velveeta, which was A-OK with my juvenile wolf pack. The ingredients include a cheese blend of cheddar and granular and semi-soft blue cheese, according to Boston Market's nutrition information.
The mac and cheese also is sold in a kid's meal, which includes a side, drink and cornbread for $3.79; and as a gourmet side, $4.29 large or $2.29 small.
Health warning: Mac and cheese is easily the saltiest of Boston Market's side dishes, with 1,100 milligrams of sodium per serving.
What else: Locations across the U.S., including 28 in Dallas-Fort Worth. Hours vary.
More: 817-788-8008; www.bostonmarket.com
Golden Noodle, Best Value
350 Main St., Fort Worth
This old-school downtown diner, perhaps better known for serving the world's largest chicken-fried steak, also is worth a trip for the smoked chicken macaroni and cheese.
Cowtown Diner originally got my attention because it was offering this dish for free -- as part of a "Free Meals on Monday" promotion -- with the purchase of another menu item. But late last week, I called the diner to check its hours of operation and found that the promotion had ended.
In any case, at regular prices the smoked chicken macaroni and cheese is a terrific deal -- $9.95 lunch and $12.95 dinner.
A traditional pasta and four-cheese blend is baked to creamy perfection, with roasted red peppers and an enormous helping of smoked chicken -- a combination of shredded dark and white meat that probably amounts to a quarter of the bird. It arrives in a 5-by-3 rectangular ramekin, dusted with panko bread crumbs.
A kid's meal of macaroni and cheese is $4.95. On the kid's dish, there are tiny chunks of red peppers instead of the smoked chicken. My son didn't like the red peppers and picked them out, but he enjoyed the meal overall.
Guests can sit on old-timey diner seats or at booths or tables. We visited on a Sunday, and found that some guests were dressed in their best; others wore shorts and T-shirts.
What else? Open 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday and 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. The bar is open later.
More: 817-332-9555; www.thecowtowndiner.com
Golden Noodle, Honorable Mention
Inside the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, 1300 Houston St., Fort Worth
This Southern-style place inside the new Omni Fort Worth Hotel only offers a few sides, and one of them is green chile and "redneck cheddar" mac and cheese. I sat down with a Rahr & Sons draft beer and selected a 16-ounce strip loin steak, with a side, from the menu for $24.
The steak was fire-roasted to medium-rare perfection and brought to the table on a flat cast-iron plate. The macaroni arrived in a tiny cast-iron cup, with the top scorched just right, like a cheesy version of a creme brulee.
It was a delightful pairing, and I admired the no-frills fashion in which the mac 'n' cheese was presented. I tasted a hint of garlic and salt, but I couldn't detect any green chile in the dish. I'm not sure what "redneck cheddar" is, but no matter. It's still a really good rendition of mac 'n' cheese.
What else: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m. Saturday; dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. daily. Also, breakfast and Sunday brunch are served.
More: 817-535-6664; www.omnihotels.com
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796