Remember that time I judged the Texas Mac Off? What do you mean, I never blogged about it? Well, pull up a chair and have a seat, because I have quite a cheesy tale to tell.
Slung low in the sky, the midday sun fought to burn through the haze and humidity typical of a Texan summer. Undaunted, a dozen brave souls set hot plates and chafing dish heaters ablaze, igniting molten vats of gooey orange sauce, thick with ambition. The stakes were high, with competitors vying for cheese-covered fame, glory, but most importantly, the golden noodle trophy.
Over 300 hungry souls came to get their mac on, to taste and test oodles of noodles. Gluten-free, vegetable-based, whole wheat, and classic white pastas all vied for the title, each one smothered in equally diverse mixtures of spicy, savory, crunchy, gooey toppings. For the casual bystander, this was merely a celebration of the classic childhood treat, but for me, Jessica Morris, and Rolando Garza, my fellow judges, this was serious business.
Personal preferences aside, just how do you evaluate the proper degree of sauciness? Just what constitutes the perfect cheesy flavor? How important is it to stick with the classic preparation, or should more points be assigned to innovations that depart from the expected orange essentials?
By the time the 12th, and then 13th rich, creamy cup was delivered, my head was spinning. Yes, they’re all good, but which ones are great? Which single entry was the best? Coming to an agreeable consensus just among the three of us was fraught with disagreement, dissenting opinions strongly argued as we huddled over cheese-smeared papers smudged with undecipherable ink stains. Luckily, it was a close call at the top, and any of the dominant macs would have been fully welcomed on my dinner plate again.
Innovation won out over classic comfort in the end. First place went to Megan Gross with her blazing Buffalo Cauliflower Mac N Cheeze. Just one point separated this spicy blend from my person favorite, which ultimately came in second; the previous year’s winner, as it turned out, Megan Bee with her Classic Mac and cheeze with a cheezy crumb topping.
It was simply the platonic ideal of the art form in my eyes. Tender yet toothsome pasta tubes, generously sauced without becoming soupy, decadent, slightly salty, savory, and oh so cheesy. Crunchy cheese-infused breadcrumbs sealed the dish in a toasty, slightly nutty blanket, perfectly balancing out textures and flavors. If it hadn’t been pushing 100 degrees in the sun, I could have eaten that whole chafing pan of noodle goodness myself.
Easily the most creative, avant-garde edible was actually a dish not entered for consideration. Mac and cheese ice cream scooped out by Austin’s favorite vegan parlor, Sweet Ritual, blew out all the stops for what one might expect from the average mac. Mercifully sweet rather than full-on savory, this inspired frozen creation laced umami notes through nutritional yeast-spiked breadcrumbs, mingling amidst a smooth base glowing with a heavy turmeric glow. Fearless foodies clamored for a spoonful, curious, shocked, and ultimately delighted.
As with any good, spirited competition, there were clearly no losers in this crowd. Everyone went home in a fully contented, if slightly sweaty state of cheesed-out bliss. Think vegans can’t get their mac on? You should really go to the next Texas Mac Off and taste for yourself.
Spicy Fried Tofu Fish and Braised Mushrooms
283 Rama IV Rd, Khwaeng Rong Muang, Khet Pathum Wan
Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10330
Papaya Salad, Larb, Avocado Salad, Fried Jackfruit, Mushroom Soup, and Black Sesame Smoothie
19 Suthep Rd, Tambon Su Thep, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200
Papaya Salad (Front)
976/17 Rama IX Rd, Khwaeng Bang Kapi
Khet Huai Khwang, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10310
27/2 Moon Mueang, ซอย 9 T. Sri Phume
Amphoe Mueang, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50300
Plant Base Berlin
Polish Dumplings Workshop
10967 Berlin, Germany
Imagine world-class cuisine with Michelin aspirations, celebrating seasonal, local purveyors, and regional specialties. Take that very same passion, elevating the everyday vegetable without any animal products, and apply it to an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet at a fraction of the cost of a comparable tasting menu. Gourmets and gourmands line up for a spot at Kopps in Berlin, Germany every weekend because the dream actually comes to life right here. The reality is far more satisfying than mere musings to feed the mind.
Easily one of the best meals I’ve had in years, there aren’t words enough to recommend this experience highly enough. Forget what you think you know about steam table warming dishes of limp hash browns or watery tofu scrambles; these are dishes on par with those offered by Millennium, or Candle 79, or Vedge, for some frame of reference. Serving staggering quantities of fine dining-quality food at fast-casual cafeteria prices, a single luxurious Sunday brunch would be worth the cost of round trip airfare alone. I would camp out here every single weekend if it was possible.
Homemade meatless charcuterie lines the cold station along with dairy-free cheeses and butters, begging to be lavished on an array of soft fresh breads. Marinated vegetables sing with a balanced acidic bite to perfectly cut through the richness while incorporating subtle notes of garlic and fresh herbs that are so well blended, it’s impossible to tease the exact combination apart. Of course you have your yogurts, chia puddings, fruits, and granola if you want to keep it continental, but what a terrible shame that would be.
Enter without expectations and prepare yourself for happy surprises. No two days are alike on this menu, which is built around vegetables found in season, first and foremost. Visiting at the height of spargelzeit afforded me the greatest indulgence of thick, fat white asparagus stalks bathed in creamy hollandaise sauce; a highlight of the entire trip, undoubtedly a fleeting delicacy for regulars, too. Pair that with luscious barley risotto, buttery grits, or even tempura fried cauliflower, if you feel the least bit self-conscious about unloading the whole chafing dish onto your plate.
Do come back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths. We haven’t even talked about the silver dollar pancakes, the plum crumble, the berry compote! Leave room for the soup while you’re there, which happened to be a deeply soothing, silky carrot-coconut number on this chilly spring morning. Don’t scoff at the salads, either, which are more than forgettable leafy fare. Tender lentils mingle with roasted beets and a light vinaigrette in one abundant bowl, while lightly pickled cucumbers remain perky and bright in another. A devilish eggless salad tempts nearby, with or without plant-based bacon.
If you managed to leave room for dessert, you’d be treated to airy chocolate mousse, tangy squares of cheesecake, gingersnap cookie bites… And perhaps, by this point, a food coma to last you until the next weekend. Actually, that would be merciful, because it’s awfully hard to go back to any other establishment in the meantime, knowing what you might be missing.
Make reservations well in advance, leave plenty of time to circle the block while hunting fruitlessly for parking, and block out the rest of your day. You have a lot of culinary ground to cover.
10115 Berlin, Germany