Battle of the Mac 'n' Cheese
If you were trapped on a desert island and could only take five items with you, what couldn't you live without? Toothbrush? Makeup? Deodorant? Teddy bear? Call us crazy, but we'd take a giant tub of mac 'n' cheese -- our favorite comfort food. The plane could crash, the coconut supply could be decimated, the sharks could be circling, but as long as we had our tub of cheesy goodness we'd be content.
We tasted two macaroni dishes rumored to be some of the best in town to see which one we'd take to our lonely little island.
In One Corner: Switch
2603 N. Central Ave. in Phoenix
Located in the highly desirable spot adjacent to Durant's, Switch is the kind of trendy, dark place we go to for late night wining and dining (or just wining, whatever). The dining room is bathed in shades of blue. White curtains drape from ceiling to floor, staggered around the room to create privacy.
Switch's Mac 'N' Cheese entree features three cheeses, but no added veggies or protein. For an extra couple of dollars, you can add smoked turkey or baked lobster & crab. We opted for the turkey.
A heaping portion of penne pasta arrived in a white ceramic serving bowl. (Bonus points for a bowl. Granny would've never served mac n' cheese on a plate!) The aroma was comforting; the same savory, mouthwatering smell that accompanied the mac and cheese of our childhood. The light dusting of parmesan on top was baked until bubbly crisp, giving the first few bites a pungent zing. Underneath waited a surprise.
"This tastes exactly like noodles out of a box," said my stunned companion. "And I'm talking the cheap kind with the powder."
Ouch. Everyone was in agreement. The sauce was rich and creamy, but the flavor profile was one-note: and that note was K-R-A-F-T. Now, we're not opposed to mac-in-a-box every once in a while when we're reliving our college dorm days, but for $12.50 we could afford a dozen boxes of the stuff.
The smoked turkey we paid to add wasn't what we expected, either. No thick cubes or savory chunks pulled off the bone. Instead we got sliced deli turkey, broken up and tossed into the pasta. Ick. Again with the dorm food. The decor may have been upscale, but the dish was low-rent.
In the Other Corner: Urban Tea Loft
11 W. Boston St. in Chandler
Inside, the walls are lined with tea paraphernalia on wooden shelves. The small space is dominated by a refrigerated bakery case and a couple of giant round upholstered booths. A handful of tables rounds out the seating options. It's a cozy space with a small town feel. The management seems to know everyone -- since it was our first time, they popped by our table for a meet-and-greet.
Our Urban Macaroni and Cheese arrived in a deep bowl (ding! one point), the elbow pasta topped with a crisp brown layer of cheese, crushed Ritz crackers and crisscrossed slices of red bell pepper. We dug in to find a savory, flavorful sauce complimented by the salty punch of diced pancetta. The red pepper added crunch, while cooked spinach throughout the dish provided soft texture and an earthy touch.
"This is delicious," one of our companions mumbled, while hogging a huge chunk of pasta held together by the crisp top layer. "But the texture's a little weird."
While palatable, the cheese sauce didn't exactly look appealing once we broke through the top layer. The cheese curdled in little clumps, like cheese does when microwaved. Considering most of the restaurant's dishes are made from scratch, even the soup, we doubt a microwave was in play here. More likely, there was no starch added to the sauce to help prevent curdling.
Despite the unattractive texture, it was a pretty tasty mac' n' cheese. [Note: We may be among the last locals to sample Urban Tea Loft's macaroni and cheese, as it's not on the revised dinner menu they're unveiling next week.]
The Winner: Urban Tea Loft
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.