What makes a great mac & cheese is perhaps more intensely subjective than pizza crust preferences. Is it thick creamy cheese sauce or a layer of cheesy crust? Some say it requires a generous topping of seasoned breadcrumbs, while others are staunchly anti-crumb. Instead of answer or impose, we thought it best to simply offer a list of our fair city's superlatives — the best of soul, casserole, saucy, crumby, baked, etc. — ranked against the best of their own category. Turn the page for the 9 best mac & cheese dishes in L.A.
For traditionalists, it doesn't get better than Joan's casserole-style mac with three cheeses. No breadcrumbs, no herbs, no bacon, just a rectangular block of cheese and noodles with a strong resemblance to a rock-climbing wall, or porous hieroglyphics. 8350 W. Third St., Los Angeles. (323) 655-2285.
Edendale Grill was taken over by one of its bartenders in 2010 and renamed Edendale. The other changes weren't hugely significant either, but enough to warrant a revisit, if only to taste the baked mac & cheese, which is a house specialty. Two kinds of cheddar and mozzarella combine in a lightly grainy cream, reminiscent of a matured Stouffer's. (Don't kid yourself, Stouffer's makes a serious cheese sauce.) Topped with a generous ration of melted mozzarella and baked into a browned and melty coverlet, it's alternately soft and crusty, with a handful of chile-garlic breadcrumbs. It doesn't need bacon or jalapeño, but for an extra dollar, why not? 2838 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake. (323) 666-2000.
Fred's Mac Daddy Balls, a deep-fried version of its Mac Daddy and Cheese, registers a combination of nuclear engineering and stoner imagination. Jack cheese, mozzarella, cotija and crème fraiche with mild green pasilla chiles. Oh, and macaroni. Which is to say there was macaroni, before Fred's deep-fryer set to work breaking down molecular structures of each ingredient like a cheesy Chernobyl, melting them into a hot ball of fat and starch. At first crispy, then stringy with a tickle of spice, their semblance to mozzarella sticks may tempt you to dip them in ranch dressing. No one here will judge. 1850 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (323) 667-0062.
The mac & cheese at Nook Bistro offers the perfect first bite. A combination of crispy top and creamy innards that captures a bit of that yin/yang thing the Santa Monica set is always running on about. Indeed, it's that balanced bite of Parmesan, cheddar and gorgonzola with its crumby, herby crust that separates Nook from a run-of-the-mill bistro mac. The Caesar side salad is nice, too. 11628 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 207-5160.
5. Chef Marilyn's Soul Food Express
Many people will tell you the best place to eat soul food-style mac & cheese in Los Angeles is at Roscoe's, and they may be right, since Soul Buffet, home to our favorite soul food mac, is to-go only. Chef Marilyn's mac is soft, buttery and sharp, colored the kind of orange that slows traffic. She'll also pack more into a Styrofoam cup than you believed possible and call you "sugar" when ringing you up. Even better: It's just $2.50 for a side here, compared to $4.90 at Roscoe's. 5068 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-3879.
4. Grilled Cheese Truck
It's called the Cheesy Mac and Rib. An innovation of architecture and artistry, a reinvention of the wheel — macaroni and cheese between two slices of grilled buttermilk bread with sharp melted cheddar — worthy of dual commendations as an upgrade to both the grilled cheese sandwich and the classic mac & cheese. The noodles add body to the grilled sandwich, while the bread adds portability and a concentrated toasty crunch to the mac. BBQ pork and caramelized onions — for a $1.75 extra — add the perfect sweetness.
The Flying Pig truck was conceived as a test ground for this, its brick-and-mortar counterpoint. Like the truck, the café menu focuses on Asian- and Pacific Rim-inspired street food. It changes sporadically, but the duck confit mac is a mainstay. Shelled pasta cups the thick saucy Parmesan and tender duck confit, and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs adds nutty texture to what is essentially the skillet of hot soft fats. We've heard some say this mac is transcendent. We disagree, but only because of the extra pound of fat weighing us down. Bonus points for being the bougiest mac under $8. 141 S. Central Ave., Little Tokyo. (213) 621-0300.
2. Pete's Cafe & Bar
(This restaurant is now closed.)
If you're one of those who thinks cheese sauce is a requisite, we suggest you stop being so prudish. The mac & cheese at Pete's, which substitutes creamy goat cheese for the more traditional sauce, is unbound by convention and among the sharpest on our list. White Vermont cheddar and Asiago cheese, which pull so elegantly on the top layer of so many macs, are here disbursed evenly throughout the dish, creating a picture-perfect pull in every bite. 400 S. Main St., dwntwn. (213) 617-1000.
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If you were unimpressed by the mac & cheese you tried at Bay Cities, then you must have tried their other mac & cheese. There are two distinct macs served at the Santa Monica Italian deli: one a traditional saucy yellow and the other a sprezzaturic everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. The latter could never disappoint. The macaroni swells with eight of the most flavorful cheeses in the house and hunks of leftover bread lap up the residual oils. Bay Cities' mac is enough to give heartburn to an 8-year-old and good enough for him to know it's worth it. Call ahead if you can and ask for the casserole-style in the hot case. The lunch line could go through an entire tray long before you get to order. 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 395-8279.