Mac and Cheesing My Way Across The South – Marcella The Cheesemonger International Guilde des Fromagers
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Mac and Cheesing My Way Across The South

You’ve seen those signs “I brake for garage sales”… well as a degenerate turophile, I brake for Mac n Cheese and there’s no better part of our great country for this obsession than in The South, where most Comfort Food was created generations ago… heck, I was 19 before I learned that you didn’t have to fry everything…

With no disrespect to other parts of the country, but too much of the mac n cheese you find in local diners and dives is Crap, with a Capital C that does not stand for Cheese. Sometimes I only have to look at the dish when it arrives at the table to know I’ve ordered one made with either Velveeta (with all due respect to Velveeta) or a combination of cheese powder (with all due respect to cheese powder) and milk. In both cases, it usually looks like this:IMG_20131216_185132_353

Nothing is more disappointing than to ask your server if the mac n cheese is made from scratch; be told it is and have it arrive and know by looking at it that it is  commercial cheese sauce, out of a can or a plastic pouch, heated and poured over noodles, generally of the elbow persuasion. (The above is  served at a large national chain that claims to serve “homemade” food… I don’t think so…)

I prefer mac n cheese that has a crusty panko topping and has been under the broiler, but it doesn’t require baking to be a great mac n cheese… it all depends on the ingredients, most importantly the cheese… and the abilities of the cook…

One Hot Mama's Mac n CheeseAs many of you who are loyal readers know, since the departure of our dear Spaulding Gray, The Man has been traveling more with me and recently joined me in on my trip through the South, which started on Hilton Head Island, just off the coast of South Carolina. That’s where we found our first tasty mac n cheese, at One Hot Mama’s, a rib joint on the south end of the island. The owners also have other restaurants on the island, all with different menus and fares and we ate in three. In my opinion, this one was the best of the three and the only one with mac n cheese. Mama’s recipe is “stove-top” (no baking) with a creamy sauce made on the premises with several different cheeses. I rarely ask for recipes, respecting the proprietary nature of restaurant recipes, so I can only guess: part cheddar, part parmesan and part fontina or a Swiss-style melter. Well-balanced flavor over noodles that were not over-cooked, another too-common flaw in restaurant noodles. This photo was taken by Stephen Garcia at Mama’s, another cheese nerd/geek who also loves to take pix of his dinners… Were Spaulding still with us, I’m confident he would give One Hot Mama’s Mac n Cheese 3 Paws.

Longhorn Steak House Mac n CheeseAfter Hilton Head we journeyed north to visit my parents, Miss Anne and The Tall Guy… En route we stopped to have dinner at a Longhorn Steakhouse, a chain with above-average fare that centers around steaks with sides that compliment them… and what compliments steak better than mac n cheese? Actually I didn’t have a steak, instead opting for a salad and their “Signature” Steakhouse Mac n Cheese. According to our waiter, this dish was prepared in the kitchen, individually from all fresh ingredients, which consisted of four different cheeses, sprinkled with bread crumbs and browned under the broiler to create that crispy crunch I like… again, another good mac n cheese; flavorful, creamy… quite respectable, especially coming out of a chain restaurant kitchen… another 3 Paws.

Mam Lynns Mac n Cheese with Fried Chicken LiversWhile visiting my family in Lavonia, Georgia, Miss Anne and The Tall Guy took us to one of their favorite restaurants located downtown on Pine Street, Mama Lynn’s, known for its southern, soulful cooking. It’s located in a small storefront that previously was probably a general store back before the Interstates and Wal-Mart crippled downtown businesses all over America.

Mama Lynn hit the lottery sometime in the past and used her winnings to open a church and a restaurant. In addition to being a fabulous cook, Mama Lynn is also a minister. We ate at Mama Lynn’s twice and I had the mac n cheese both visits. Mama Lynn’s Mac n Cheese is baked and her sauce is more like a custard due to the addition of eggs to the sauce which is made using cheddar cheese. Not as creamy as the first two reviewed here, but far from dry; as Goldilocks would say… it was just right! I also had fried chicken livers, which are cooked to order (as are most of the entrees), so be prepared to wait and it is worth the wait…Miss Anne loves the collard greens, claiming they are good for her eyes. Mama Lynn doesn’t have a website and she only takes cash; no credit/debit cards, so bring along a few Lincolns. In addition to serving superior Southern Soul Food, Mama Lynn’s prices are quite reasonable. A 4 Paws winner…

I saved the best or last, with no disrespect for the three already mentioned…

I spent 161 nights in hotels during 2013, which means I eat out far more than I care to remember. It also means I eat a lot of sub-par food and as time goes along, I find myself getting more and more picky when it comes to restaurant food. I rely on Urbanspoon to help me weed out the bad and the ugly from the good. While in Georgia, I discovered a 100% rating on the website. Now you can rig the ratings of any restaurant with a few recommendations, but this particular restaurant had 55 thumbs up and not a single thumbs down (that number is now at 57 – one of which is mine… but still, that’s batting a thousand…)

The Man and I arrived early at Gina Belle’s, out in the middle of nowhere somewhere between Commerce and Athens. Quite frankly, had we just been driving by, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it… thank you Urbanspoon. We arrived a little after 11am, planning to have breakfast. Our server advised us that breakfast was over at 11 and the lunch buffet was already out on the steam table. I was disappointed on two fronts; I was craving grits and for the most part I hate buffets… if I want to serve myself, I can do that at home. We opted to order off the menu.

First surprise; the most expensive item on the menu was $6.25…Gina Belle's Mac n Cheese

We decided to be cautious and stick with a safe standby, cheeseburgers and fries. The server asked what kind of cheese with the choices being “American” and “Hoop”. We went with hoop. Our server also told us everything was cooked to order off the menu so it would be a few minutes… (For a short explanation on Hoop Cheese, click here.)

As we waited and noon approached, cars and trucks started arriving and a line for the buffet began to form; our first clue that perhaps we should have chosen the buffet. Our cheeseburgers arrived and they were great; we were both pleased. But people kept arriving and everyone except us was having the buffet. When one customer walked by I caught sight of mac n cheese on the plate… well… you know where this is going…

I asked our server if the mac n cheese was good and she said yes and offered me a taste. It’s a safe bet that if the server offers a taste, it’s good… I threw caution to the wind and asked her to bring me a side. The Man ordered a side of the cherry cobbler, also offered on the buffet.

The cobbler was divine; sweet, not tart and as might be expected… The Man swooned.

But Gina Belle’s Mac n Cheese was to die for… literally the best mac n cheese I have ever had in a restaurant and I’ve tasted a lot of restaurant mac n cheese… seriously… A LOT. If mac n cheese is on the menu, I order it… Sometimes I finish it; sometimes, I don’t…

Similar to Mama Lynn’s, the cheese sauce contained eggs and was fluffy like a custard. In talking with the server, I learned the cheese in the dish was also the hoop cheese. It was baked in small batches for the buffet – aluminum, throw-away pans no bigger than 12X12. It was cheesy, creamy and melted in my mouth; absolutely perfect. How I wished I had eaten at the buffet…Gina Belle and The Lady

After we finished, we met the cook and gave her our accolades and promised to return, which we did the next day with Miss Anne and The Tall Guy. We all had the buffet; sadly there was no mac n cheese, but a very respectable broccoli casserole to go with our fried chicken, which was moist and another winner…

While we were sitting enjoying our southern fare, the server walked up with Gina Belle in tow… we were thrilled; I even got our picture taken together… only one question continues to haunt me… how the heck can Gina Belle stay thin and cook this way???

We give Gina Belle’s 4 Paws out of 4 Paws (cause that’s all Spaulding had)… I’m pretty sure he would thrown in a couple of tail wags as well.

All-in-all, another successful trip to The South… and a couple of restaurants that I will visit the next time I am in their neighborhoods…

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