Say, ‘Mac ’n’ cheese!’

Grading local versions of the comfort-food classic

The Bow Tie Cheesy Mac at Wander includes toasted cheddar and animal-shaped cheesy crackers (and bacon!) on top.

The Bow Tie Cheesy Mac at Wander includes toasted cheddar and animal-shaped cheesy crackers (and bacon!) on top.

photo by meredith j. graham

There are few dishes in this world more comforting than a nice hot dish of macaroni and cheese. And the beauty of it is, the recipe has such a basic foundation—pasta and cheese—that there is no end to the possible variations. Macaroni noodles are the standard, but many varieties—shells, bow-ties—can work just as well. And though cheddar is nearly ubiquitous, adding to that classic cheese with other varieties can bring nuances of flavor, and mixing it up with add-ins such as bacon can intensify the taste and provide texture.

I started thinking about mac ’n’ cheese a few months ago when, while playing pool at the DownLo one night, I ordered their version and fell madly in love. Theirs is no run-of-the-mill mac ’n’ cheese, either—pasta shells are mixed with a delightfully thick cheesy sauce and topped first with a layer of golden-brown cheddar and then with crispy bacon (you can also add jalapeño). Putting it over the top, though, is the cheddar oozing over and forming a cheese skirt reminiscent of the famous crispy ring around the burgers at Nobby’s on Park Avenue.

I’ve since given in to temptation more than once at the DownLo. But I began to wonder what else might be out there, and how they might measure up to my current fave. Suddenly, I had a mission.

I didn’t try every local version, but I did sample the ones I’d heard about the most (though I’ve since learned the Winchester Goose regularly serves a mac ’n’ cheese special that I’ll need to keep an eye out for). These three hot spots offer distinctly different takes on the comfort-food classic:

The Banshee

Far and away the best of the three, the Banshee’s mac ’n’ cheese ($11) is most definitely crave-worthy (especially after a pint or two). With penne pasta drenched in a thick, flavorful cheese sauce and topped with a golden-browned layer of cheddar, the Banshee also offers add-ons of bacon or ham. I chose bacon, which was mixed throughout. It was nice to have bacon in every bite, but it did lose its crunch in the sauce. Truth be told, though, this wasn’t much of a downside. The Banshee, 134 W. Second St., 895-9670,

Wander food truck

Wander is one of the newer food trucks to hit the streets of Chico. With a dedication to “real food, made by humans,” the truck offers comfort food with a carnival twist. The Bow Tie Cheesy Mac is a good value at $6 with maple bacon ($5 without), and the addition of toasted cheddar on top adds a satisfying crunch to each bite. The carnival element to this dish is cheesy animal-shaped crackers sprinkled on top—a whimsical and tasty addition! The downside to Wander’s mac ’n’ cheese is that the sauce, while silky smooth (and made to order from scratch), was a bit runny and didn’t pack enough of a cheese punch. Wander food truck, 680-3871,

Johnnie’s Restaurant

As one might expect, Johnnie’s Restaurant offers a more sophisticated take on mac ’n’ cheese than food trucks and bars. The house favorite ($12) includes curly, ridged cavatappi pasta in a five-cheese bechamel sauce with roasted chilies and a baked crust. Unfortunately, it did not quite live up to the five-star description. The sauce had a nice, cheesy flavor, but it was thin and had a grainy texture. Also, the “baked crust” was pretty plain, with what seemed to be only bread crumbs placed on top before baking. Johnnie’s Restaurant, 220 W. Fourth St., 895-1515,