11 local restaurants serve up euphoric bowls of mac & cheese
When running long distances, some athletes experience a “high” several miles into their jaunt, releasing endorphins that create sensations of euphoria and bliss.
When eating great amounts of mac and cheese, some eaters experience a “high” several bowls into their meal, releasing endorphins which inevitably lead to a post-binge nap.
On Sunday, I was lucky enough to attend the 1st Annual “Get Your Phil” Mac & Cheese Competition, hosted by the Erie Philharmonic at the Concourse of Union Station. On this brilliant, carb-centric day, I had the chance to sample 12 different bowls of mac and cheese created by the participating restaurants in the competition. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s exactly what I was going for, because it was glorious.
When you’ve got chefs from Alto Cucina, Jekyll & Hyde’s, and Cloud 9, you know you’re in for a treat. And the treats came in the forms of bacon, sausage, and other savory add-ins. And there was beer. And there was live music. And there was joy abounding for 3 hours.
I’m no stranger to taste testing competitions: I’ve earned my 3-year badge at the Souper Bowl, put on every year by the Sarah Reed Children’s Center. I’ve learned a few things from this event:
- You need to pace yourself. If you eat the entirety of everything you’re handed, you are going to a.) fill up fast, b.) not get to every station, and c.) look a little like Violet Beauregard in Willy Wonka, sans the blueberry color
- Take beverage breaks. You’re going to be eating pounds of pasta, which can quickly lead to “Pasta Gut.”
- If your first taste of a sample doesn’t inspire greatness, move on…you’ve got to ration out your remaining stomach space. Lives are at stake.
That being said, I had a game plan in place before I even walked through the doors of the Concourse of Union Station, where the event was held. My boyfriend and I started sampling in order, and we never deterred from our path. It was difficult, at times. Some vendors’ offerings were so good that we could have just planted ourselves at their station and stayed for the whole afternoon. You know how you can have a Man Crush/Woman Crush? I developed Chef Crushes on many of the cooks and nearly asked them to move into my spare room at home.
Some of the offerings included:
- Parmesan Mac & Cheese with Fried Mac & Cheese Bite (Beechwood Golf Club)
- Bourbon Bacon Mac & Cheese (Bourbon Barrel)
- Southwest Mac & Cheese (Cali’s West)
- Mac & Cheese Benedict (Cloud 9)
- Langostino Mac & Cheese (814 Pub and Grille)
Are you suddenly feeling your waist band tighten? You’re experiencing what I call “Pasta Simpatico,” and it will pass in a few minutes.
There were moments of Rigatoni Haze. After sampling from every vendor, we took a breather with some beer from the Brewerie and Five & 20 Brewery. Fun fact: Mazza Vineyards in Westfield also sells Five & 20 Beer, and they have 1/2 price pint nights every Thursday during the summer.
After our beverage break, we went back and obtained a second sample from our top five restaurants because gluttony was not a sin that day. #sorrynotsorry
Hands down, without a doubt, my favorite dish of the day went to Bourbon Barrel, who prepared the Bourbon Bacon Mac. It was slightly sweet, but lusciously creamy (and the huge slice of peppery bacon on top didn’t hurt, either). I have not been to Bourbon Barrel yet for a meal, but I have a Groupon for a bourbon tasting and you can bet I will also order the mac & cheese when I am there.
My second place pasta was really a tie between Three B’s Saloon and Alto Cucina. Three B’s gave you the option of selecting “add-ins” to put in your bowl, and I opted for fresh tomatoes, shredded cheese, and bacon. Their flavor really set them apart.
Alto Cucina, as I already mentioned, had a wonderfully creamy Steak & Mushroom Mac that warmed my soul. The noodles spoke to me. I think I had visions.
Some honorable mentions included the Beechwood Golf Club, which is primarily known for, you know, golf. I’ve had lunch in their club house before, but their pasta blew me away. Another rich, creamy offering, but they added a small, fried Mac & Cheese bite on top as well. Bonus points for fried appetizers on my pasta.
I would be remiss to exclude Jekyll & Hyde’s from my top 5. This has long been a favorite dish of mine, which might have skewed my judgment overall. I’ve already purchased stock in their Mac and Cheese, so I only thought it best to vote elsewhere. That being said, this may be one of my favorite dishes in Erie….heck, Jekyll & Hyde may be my favorite restaurant in Erie.
But who knows? Maybe they will be unseated by some new faces we saw at the competition. It was very refreshing to see 814 Bar & Grille at the event, along with the new 408 Bar & Grille. I’m anxious to try out The Breakwater Restaurant & Pub as well. I’m also already a huge fan of the Millcreek Brewing Company and Calamari’s.
After all was eaten and done, the tasters of the event crowned three winners:
- 1st Place: Alto Cucina
- 2nd Place: Bourbon Barrel
- 3rd Place: Cali’s West Catering
My only regret about Sunday? Sadly, there was no “Nap Room” for the unfortunate victims of the popular Carb Coma, but I think the Phil may take me up on this idea for next year. Just throw a few yoga mats here and there, spread out some throw pillows, and dim the lights. I’m telling you: I’ll put myself down for a power nap and return to my eating, stronger than ever before.
Many thanks to Steve Weiser, Lisa Herring, Jess Flock, Alex Hake and Matt Anderson for putting on a delightful Sunday afternoon of carb-loading.