When I was in elementary school, my family often went out to dinner at American chain restaurant Boston Market. Every single time, my kids’ meal order was the same: mac and cheese with a side of mac and cheese. Against my parents’ advice, I also typically replaced the standard cornbread side with — you guessed it — mac and cheese.
Years later and a few states away, I’ve expanded my palate significantly, but my love for the classic dish remains. I still think about mac and cheese far more than the average person should, and I eat it at least once or twice a week. At a restaurant or at home, there’s no food more comforting than some creamy pasta that tastes like childhood.
After nearly two years in Columbia, I’ve been able to create a pretty comprehensive mental catalogue of the best mac and cheese around town. No matter your budget or specific preferences, CoMo has the perfect dish for you.
If you want to enjoy a modern vibe while eating some seriously classy mac and cheese, look no further than Room 38. This is the priciest option, but treating yourself to a fancy version of a classic meal in an upscale restaurant is worth it. Lobster mac and cheese might sound a little strange, but it’s unbelievably creamy. The lobster is subtle and its buttery flavor complements the shell noodles without overpowering the cheese sauce. Although the dish doesn’t look that filling, the richness of the pasta/lobster combination and a delectable sauce easily make it a full meal on its own. Your friends might be eating lobster bites or salmon skewers, but you’re eating lobster AND mac and cheese together, so who’s the real winner here?
Price: $9.50 for an entree
Location: 38 N. Eighth St.
Noodles and Company
Conveniently located on the edge of downtown right across from the J-School, Noodles is definitely the closest mac and cheese to campus. The chain restaurant uses classic elbow macaroni with a light cheese sauce and shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese on top, which melts together into a deliciously gooey mess when stirred. For some extra protein, try adding the parmesan-crusted chicken breast. The small size makes a great snack, and the regular is definitely filling enough to be its own meal. The close location and reasonable prices make Noodles perfect for a snack in between classes.
Price: $4.49 for small, $5.89 for regular
Location: 406 S. Ninth St. or 21 Conley Road
If you want a sit-down meal that won’t break the bank, Glenn’s mac and cheese is simple with a fancy presentation. The penne noodles are unusual for mac and cheese, and they have a white cheddar sauce and are served in an adorable silver dish. This recipe hits the spot as comfort food away from home. Glenn’s only offers mac and cheese as a side dish, but it’s nearly filling enough to stand on its own. Its flavor isn’t as strong or dynamic as some of the other options, so try pairing it with a savory or salty appetizer — and Glenn’s has plenty of those, from potato wedges to fried pickles — to bring out the creaminess.
Price: $5 for a side
Location: 29 S. Eighth St.
Panera (or Saint Louis Bread Company, depending on where you’re from) is a chain that isn’t unique to Columbia, but its mac and cheese is still a good option because of its versatility. The round shell macaroni in a white cheddar sauce is filling and savory without being too rich or heavy. The large bowl is the perfect size to fill any mac and cheese lover’s craving, and the small option makes an excellent side to any meal — Panera has so many other salad, sandwich or soup options that it’s easy to find a complement to your pasta. If (or when) you want to eat your carbs inside some more carbs, get your mac in a bread bowl. Panera is the farthest from campus, but if you’re at the mall or headed to the highway, it’s a great quick stop.
Price: $4.99 for small, $5.99 in a bread bowl, $7.99 for large
Location: 100 Brickton Road, Columbia Mall or 3709 S. Providence Road
If you’re sticking to a budget but still want some mac and cheese, the classic Kraft blue box is always a good fallback. Don’t be afraid to look beyond the “original” flavor and try something new. My personal favorites are the three-cheese or thick and creamy varieties; they’re still similar to the original flavor, but just different enough to make you forget you’re eating cheese that was originally in the form of yellow powder. Annie’s Homegrown brand provides healthier organic options, and the Shells and White Cheddar is a highlight. If you’re feeling creative, find a recipe for homemade mac, or try making mac and cheese bites or fried mac and cheese balls. The possibilities are endless, and it’s mac and cheese, so you can’t really go wrong.
Price: About $1.50 per box
Location: Around Columbia
Edited by Katie Rosso | firstname.lastname@example.org