Baltimore has one. So do Phoenix, Scottsdale, Santa Barbara, Charleston and now Tampa. On Saturday, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn hosts the first Mac & Cheese Throwdown in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in downtown Tampa. This free event presented by Friends of the Riverwalk in conjunction with the city of Tampa and the mayor proves one thing: Everyone loves mac and cheese. It's the little black dress of foods — perfect for every occasion, but accessorize it right and get ready for drop-dead glamor.
Why these mayoral mac-inations?
"I think mac and cheese is the universal comfort food," Buckhorn said. "Like barbecue or chili, there are as many variations and iterations as there are cooks."
The mayor, who says his own skill set in the kitchen is limited, got the idea while traveling.
"Aspen has a mac and cheese festival and it was packed. I came home and said, 'I got to do this in Tampa.' "
While the mayor himself will not be judging ("that would be like picking amongst my children"), he has opted to break the cheesy, noodly entries into three categories: classic, brews and mac (mac with a twist and beer sales adjacent) and wine and cheese (fancy-cheese mac).
No disrespect to the mayor, but we'd categorize differently. Classic mac is alright, but what about the rash of lobster and truffle oil fancy mac? Or all the bacon-goes-with-everything meaty mac? And then there's the mac madness whereby mac and cheese is used as an ingredient or filling for something else entirely.
In anticipation of Saturday's throwdown, we decided to round up the Tampa Bay area's best mac and cheeses for our own sMACkdown. (Mr. Mayor, you can use that next year if you want.)
This Nashville-based chain (29 locations, six in Florida) is known as a mid-priced steak house that relies upon its wood grill for many of its best menu items. For a long time the Tampa location has been a go-to for prime rib, a luxury harder to find these days, and regulars swear by the rattlesnake pasta (nope, it's chicken, but with a creamy Southwest-inflected sauce). Still, just about everyone gets behind the Not Your Ordinary Mac and Cheese ($5), which comes in an oval ramekin with molten Swiss adhering to the edges (you'll pick that stuff off and eat it). The pasta itself is sometimes elbows and sometimes shells, the sauce is creamy and white, with a faint oniony flavor, with crunchy, buttery bread crumbs browned on top.
913 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa; (813) 354-9006
Sunny Side Up
This is a newcomer in the former Duckweed grocery around the corner from the Tampa Theatre. Owner Chuck Goldstein spent time most recently as the catering director for Kahwa Coffee (he was the soup guy) but hails from Memphis, a serious mac and cheese town. Clearly soups are still a passion (Indian spiced butternut squash, loaded baked potato), but he offers lavish grilled cheese and mac and cheese lineups as well. In the latter category there is a "cheeseburger cheeseburger" version, a pizza lover's, the Cajun kicker and bacon, but for our money (and we're talking $5.85), the four-cheese is simply sumptuous. This place is really just takeout, so you're taking your mac on the hoof.
305 E Polk St., Tampa; (813) 221-6464
Lightning fans may root for this one. A kiosk at the Tampa Bay Times Forum last year drew in a legion of new fans of Holy Hog's jalapeno mac, but there's a plain version as well. Owner Danny Hernandez is a barbecue titan with a growing empire (three locations now, with a downtown location going in on Franklin this summer). He does great brisket (and burnt ends), pulled pork and ribs, but his sides are really noteworthy, from the corn fritters to collards. The plain mac and cheese is elbows with Colby Jack, with a nice cheesy oomph to it; the jalapeno version (alright, this one is even better) is dotted with jalapeno, onion, tomato and bell peppers. It's not spicy, but has the jalapeno's fruity touch of smolder. Like all sides, it's $3 for a small, $5 for a large.
3501 N Armenia Ave., Tampa; (813) 879-4647; and other locations
Urban Brew AND BBQ
We're going to call it. This is the Tampa Bay area's best mac and cheese (see cover, wipe drool). It's cooked to order in an individual cast-iron skillet. Andy Salyards makes a little roux, adds in half-and-half and butter and slowly sprinkles in smoked Gouda, Parmesan and cheddar so it doesn't bind up and the whole thing gets a super-creamy consistency. Noodles are cooked al dente, then it's all thrown together with a little prosciutto (not heavy-handed) and topped with bread crumbs that crisp up perfectly. Cost is $5. Add in $4 for a pulled pork slider and it's a dreamy meal. In March, the relative newcomer added a beer garden, and it just finished a cool mural homage to Grand Central.
1939 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 822-8919
For some people mac and cheese means the blue box with the neon-orange powdered cheese sauce. For others it means the block that comes in the orange cardboard: Velveeta. Crowley's version is for the latter. Yes, it's a "cheese food," but Velveeta stays smooth, soft and clump free, all assets in a mac and cheese sitch, which at Crowley's (an Irish pub, after all) is studded liberally with diced corned beef ($10.50 for a meal-sized portion). Hmm, next St. Patrick's Day let's think a little outside the box like this. The meat adds salt and texture, both welcome in the soft, pale orange melange.
269 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 821-1111
Ella's Americana Folk Art Café
This place gets extra props for offering a vegan mac and cheese. Nonvegans may find cheese-free cheese oxymoronic, but whatevs. The big mac guns come on Soul Food Sundays with a cast-iron skillet of bacon-studded splendor ($5). There's some green herbiness on the top, but the eyes go right to the crisp shards and bits of bacon atop spiral curls of cheese-swaddled pasta. There are toasted bread crumbs and what looks like a flurry of Parmesan, but let's be honest with ourselves here. Lots of bacon.
5119 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa; (813) 234-1000
400 Beach Seafood & Tap House
Executive chef Ana Davis has tinkered with this recipe since 400 Beach opened. It's the quintessential mac putting on the dog: cheesy creaminess studded with chunks of rich, sweet lobster. It's cavatappi, those curly, swirly, spiral tubes, with Parmesan, cream cheese and cheddar, baked in a metal au gratin pan, finished off with lobster and Monterey Jack, and then topped with more Parm and bread crumbs. The edges of the pan get extra golden brown, with the coral nubs of lobster meat peeking out from under the crisp bread crumbs (looks like panko to me). You can opt for it as an appetizer, the sensible thing to do ($8.99), or go all in as an entree ($16.95), served with fat spears of asparagus. As Oscar Wilde said, nothing succeeds like excess.
400 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-2400
Salt Rock Grill
First, we'd never heard of truffle oil. Then truffle oil was everywhere, rendering fries, pizzas and even discarded flip-flops insanely edible. But then, as with Axe body spray, there were some whose immoderate use practically queered the whole deal. Not at Salt Rock. Not long ago on their Facebook page they fished for compliments: "My favorite item on the Salt Rock Grill menu is [blank]." Readers most often filled in that blank with truffled mac and cheese ($4.90). Shredded Parmesan and smoked Gouda are added to half-and-half, butter and a touch of garlic, then a drizzle of white truffle oil, the whole gooey thing tossed with toothsome quill pasta. It's in a section of the menu called sharable sides. But as any preschooler knows, sharing is hard.
19325 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores; (727) 593-7625
Five Bucks Drinkery
The Travel Channel's Food Paradise recently filmed an episode here to investigate something. It's called the Mac and Cheese Melt. Close your eyes and focus: Imagine a traditional grilled cheese, but rammed in the middle are mac and cheese and a flurry of barbecued pulled pork, the buttery toasted bread nearly impossible to bite without mac or pork shooting out the side. They've purportedly sold 13,000 of these babies since opening in 2011. This is a good-times bar with 60 beers and 50 food items for $5 or less, food served in plastic baskets lined with paper without a lot of pomp and circumstance. To go off on a tangent, the Five Bucks' buffalo tots are a guilty pleasure, an example of two wrongs making a right.
247 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5118
Michelle Faedo's On The Go
For a while an all-mac-and-cheese food truck roamed the streets of Tampa, but O'Macalicious recently absconded to New York permanently. Still, Tampa Bay area food trucks are rich in mac. Michelle Faedo has made a national name for herself with her traditional Cuban fare such as devil crab and Cuban sandwiches, and she has been the reigning queen of the Cuban at the local Cuban Sandwich Festival. The former deli woman turned mobile is also gifted with doodads thrown in the deep-fryer: empanadas, corn nuggets, fried okra and — here it comes — mac-and-cheese bites ($4). They are crispy on the outside, molten and cheesy-gooey on the inside. Her truck seems most often to be parked at Tampa General Hospital at lunchtime, which is perhaps fortuitous given the bites' richness.
For an up-to-date accounting of her whereabouts, consult her Facebook page.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.