Comfort food essentially follows one rule, and that's to make you feel good while you eat it. We can name plenty of foods that give us cozy vibes -- side dishes spring to mind, like mashed potatoes or biscuits -- but a giant bowl of mac and cheese? Yes, please. We'll devour it whether it comes out of the classic blue box or is made from scratch by grandma, but when you boil it down to accessibility, the almighty drive-thru has most of us beat.
Nobody can claim you don't have choices, either. Tons of franchises deliver cheesy goodness while shaking up the ingredients to keep it interesting. However, that can lead to feeling stumped about where to go when all you want is to get in and out with your order. Add in disastrous pitfalls like plastic-like cheese and gluey sauce, and it doesn't inspire much confidence that there's anything better than the instant stuff. With that in mind, we've ranked fast-food mac and cheese from worst to best. See where your favorites stand.
After Kraft, many foodies' first forays with quicker macaroni probably started at KFC. But does it live up to the rose-tinted nostalgia? While it's a classic component of any fried chicken meal, the side sadly scrapes the bottom of the bowl. It's just too industrialized. We found the creamy cheddar sauce to be very mealy with a strong, chemical flavor aftertaste. The unnatural yellow coloring backs this up because it's far too neon to resemble actual cheddar. The elbow noodles, meanwhile, are beyond rubbery and seem to mush down into the plastic-like sludge in the cup.
Look, we're not trying to stir the pot. It's just that macaroni and cheese, by and large, has evolved since the heyday of Colonel Sanders and has seen consistent improvement. We can't imagine clambering for KFC's version when there are better options galore. By all means, if you need to round out your Family Meal bundle with a tub of the stuff, go right ahead. The cheesiness is undeniably present. But whether it's any good? That's for you to decide.
Elbow noodles are the defining feature of macaroni and cheese -- it's no coincidence we refer to the pasta as "elbow macaroni," correct? So the fact that Boston Market uses rotini to craft its signature side dish immediately caught our attention. At a chain known for its meatloaf and rotisserie chicken, we know the mac craving will be strong. But an overly liquid sauce (if you can call it that) with gummy pasta just doesn't bode well for filling our stomachs.
First off, the punchy orange hue should be a hint that this mac goes extra heavy on the cheese. To our disappointment, the taste is much tamer than the "mixture of cheddar cheeses" lets on. Corkscrew pasta is an excellent vessel for trapping thick globs of sauce, but we found Boston Market simmers it too much.
Using al dente pasta and emphasizing the cheesiness could have brought its grade up, but when the broader market explodes with possibilities, we wouldn't trip over ourselves for a taste. And with a wealth of copycat recipes, there's no reason you couldn't make it yourself from scratch.
Besides bags of chips at the front register, Firehouse Subs offers soups and salads to jazz up your lunchtime hoagie. The five cheese mac & cheese earns a few points for originality but fails to deliver the pizazz. It's strange, isn't it? You've got some of the sharpest, creamiest cheeses stirred into the sauce, such as white cheddar, Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, and Monterey Jack -- no phony Velveeta in sight. But combined together? It tastes sort of bland and falls short on flavor.
Another letdown is the breadcrumb topping. The sandwich chain includes a bag you can sprinkle onto your pasta -- which sounds genius until you realize they taste more like old croutons from a salad kit, and not garlicky panko tidbits broiled to perfection. If your New York Steamer could go without another bag of Lay's, the mac and cheese might be an intriguing shake-up. This is especially true if you crave a bit of crunch in your pasta. But setting aside the novelty, the mac is not one of Firehouse's strengths (that would be the chili).
Au Bon Pain
Au Bon Pain crafts wholesome fare such as sandwiches and salads, so you might not suspect something as junky as mac and cheese to be on the menu. But alas it is. Simmered with delicate shell pasta and a Parmesan-cheddar blend, customers can grab a small, medium, or large helping. It's like the stovetop version you ate as a kid -- a little smooth, soft to the touch, easy going down, and maybe even topped with chopped hot dogs and ketchup.
Our first warning sign was seeing that Au Bon Pain's mac and cheese is classified as a soup, rather than a lone-standing noodle entree. Indeed, the section harboring giant vats of broccoli cheddar and tomato bisque is, in fact, the same place where you'll find the cheesy delicacy biding its time. The texture is so puddly and almost broth-like that it'll require a spoon to slurp up. While you're sipping away, you also won't sense much of the cheese's sharp zip. Considering you're spending more than commonly charged at the drive-thru, we think it's a tad dime-a-dozen for what you get.
Lacking complex flavor is another issue we encountered over at McAlister's Deli, a Mississippi-based dining franchise. American and cheddar contribute to a melted, tangy consistency, while Neufchatel (a soft French cheese) adds some sourness. Simple, but with a twist. Young kids will likely enjoy it -- and heck, so will most adults since the profile is so basic. But for McAlister's to scoop out a higher grade, the cheesy notes need to be stronger. The flavor is far too tepid, and given the diverse cheese blend used, an unremarkable attempt for what could be a solid pick to grab on the go.
We'll acknowledge that a perfectly edible mac doesn't always need to be bathed in spices. Since the cheese usually dominates, particularly the sharper varieties, sometimes all you need is a dash of pepper to take your pasta to the top. But because of the sparse seasoning, the flavor falls flat. Those hot plates in hospital cafes come to mind, and McAlister's projects an image of quality. It's hard to blame us for feeling disappointed.
El Pollo Loco
Does the mac and cheese from El Pollo Loco pass the test? After all, the Latin American chain isn't short on pairings to complement its flame-broiled chicken. With a lineup showing pinto beans and rice, it's difficult to see where cheese-drenched noodles fit in. Our takeaway is that on a location-to-location basis, it's fine. Some customers swear by it as a hidden gem, whereas others experienced slimy cheese sauce and water-logged elbows. At any rate, there aren't a lot of bells and whistles, which means it'll please any palate down to the absolute pickiest.
Considering so much of the appeal comes from its simplicity, it's hard to fault a franchise for playing it safe. This is your standard saucy macaroni and cheese, down to the little elbows in a pureed yellow sauce. Piping-hot with plenty of cheese flavor, it manages to remain creamy without curdling from the steam. Who can ask for more? For the general preparation -- and the budget -- it does a decent job of satisfying the bare minimum, but it's not adequate for ranking among the all-timers.
Dave's Hot Chicken
Macaroni and cheese is a definitive soul food, so Dave's Hot Chicken, a Nashville-inspired poultry spot, cranks up the heat on this staple. Let's talk about the profile: It's spicy, but not spicy enough to burn off your tongue. You get a bit of zing in each bite, but it won't unleash the sort of fire promised by the chicken. In terms of the preparation, it's similar to KFC ... or rather, it's what KFC should have done. You get a neon yellow cheese sauce whipped of zero lumps, with little elbows boiled all the way through. As a side dish, we found it to be standard for a fast-food extra.
Since mac and cheese is beyond basic to make, it's tough pitting fast-food spots against one another. Infusing more spice, not to mention the solid consistency, scores Dave's much higher than its lower-ranked competitors. But without the kick, meager as it is, we wouldn't be able to identify much of a difference. Unless you're seeking out a viable substitute for the Colonel, you could take it or leave it.
The mac and cheese from Potbelly consists of generously sized elbows coated in a "creamy 3-cheese sauce." Throwing in a cup to go with your chicken club is standard practice, but the bigger bowl can also be a main course if you want. It's a humble, basic dish, but retains a richness that's far more elevated than the usual fast-casual fare. If you're unable to stomach plain pasta, Potbelly provides a few toppings to boost your bites, like crumbled bacon or red peppers.
We can't specify the exact cheeses mixed in, but the paler coloring suggests white cheddar -- a top-notch pick for melting smoothly and punching up the flavor profile. The sauce has a slight heft, and while the noodles are definitely tender, they don't completely clump together in a thickened mass. It's not gritty or mealy, just straightforwardly creamy.
Potbelly definitely treads on the middle ground. While there are no red flags with the mac, it doesn't reinvent the wheel in any meaningful way. Our expectations for such a stripped-back dish could be high, but when you're aware of the possibilities for delicious fast-food mac and cheese, you want to see more.
Choosing a side dish from Bojangles is like trying to choose a family member. Thanks to dirty rice, green beans, coleslaw, and Bo-Tato Rounds, your homestyle tenders are never in better company -- and that also goes for the mac and cheese. The chicken chain does a good job of creating a crowd-pleaser. The creaminess is spot-on, the elbows glide through the cheese, and the sauce imbues a buttery aftertaste. It's decent soul food at a fast-food price, and any shindig in the South should be constitutionally entitled to a family-sized carton of the stuff.
The comfort aspect is definitely nailed here, that's for sure. However, it wouldn't hurt Bojangles to add something extra, since the prep is a tad low-energy. In this day and age, establishments have started baking their macs or tossing in toppings, leading to Bojangles' rendition looking plain. In fact, a Reddit commenter alleges that the creamy noodles dished up at Bojangles are an exact match for Chick-fil-A's. Except, the latter comes broiled with a crispy cheese coating. Your mileage may vary here, but notwithstanding personal preferences, it's an ordinary yet delicious option.
Other franchises might score higher on the baked front, but Popeyes packs a punch. As a decadent ode to the potluck staple, the homestyle mac & cheese gains on its competitors due to the abundance of gooey, creamy glory. Nobody was really talking much about the Louisiana Kitchen's past riff until the upgraded version dropped a few years ago, and we believe there's a valid explanation: The ingredients have improved. Actual dairy (butter included) puts points in Popeyes' favor. That ridiculously rich sensation filling your mouth? It's the real stuff at work.
The indulgence is committed to the textbook definition. Without a doubt, mac aficionados tend to fall into two camps: Those wanting a blistered crust, or those who just gobble it straight from the pot. Neither is wrong, but Popeyes executes the first style pretty well. The cheese blankets the surface in an even coating, and the chewy shards of toasted cheddar get swirled about for a toasty little surprise. Not to mention, the sauce packs in a solid sharpness that's ideal with the Cajun-seasoned chicken.
Noodles & Company
Noodles & Company's "World-Famous Macs" isn't much of an exaggeration, given that the classic dish might easily be the Colorado chain's crowning achievement. In terms of cheesy greatness, it's hard rivaling the Wisconsin mac & cheese. The prep is fairly ingenious on the restaurant's part because shredded cheese (Jack and cheddar) is piled onto hot elbow noodles with heavy cream. As the customer digs in, these components activate, melting down into the dreamy coating.
We're usually biased toward sharper profiles, but blending multiple cheeses together was definitely the right call here. The taste is less one-note than typical drive-thru renditions, plus knowing the cheeses were sourced from Wisconsin-area farms definitely puts it above average. For the sake of transparency, Noodles' offering isn't completely faultless. The cheese doesn't always melt as seamlessly as it should for true gooey perfection. But when the stars align -- and mostly they do -- it's like recovering a beautiful childhood memory. According to a jazzed customer on Tripadvisor, "Not even the blue box can beat it." Missing mom's homemade mac? This gets pretty close.
Slim Chickens, an Arkansas eatery verging on 200 restaurants across the country, gets plenty of hype for its breaded tenders. But to sleep on the sides would do your family dinner a major disservice, since the menu veers into true comfort food territory with fried okra and potato salad. The macaroni and cheese is no exception and simply excellent. We enjoy the tanginess of the white cheddar along with the firmer elbow noodles that cradle pockets of thick cheese sauce. Having seen many macaroni noodles simmered to mush, cooking them al dente works wonders with the sturdier base. Gooey, yes -- but not at all gluey.
Regular and large containers are available for your lunch, but grabbing a small crowd or large crowd bucket will be inevitable for instant devouring. The comforting taste appeals to our inner kid, but suffice it to say, the flavor is a big step up -- to the point that a soul food kitchen could sling it proudly without anyone being wiser. Any divergence from the radioactive orange sauce is also welcome in our books. Should you be close to a location, do yourself a favor and check this one out.
With an open mind, macaroni and cheese can truly be a revelation. Don't believe us? Just look to Church's Chicken for how to bake a bubbly masterpiece. The Southern chain doesn't cut corners on presentation, and as you'll find, the end result truly tastes as good as it looks. True, this isn't the first time we've seen baked mac & cheese, and from a soul food franchise no less. But the combination of that crunchy cheddar topping and creamy elbows is a slam-dunk. As effortless as mac and cheese can be -- that's one of its strengths -- we admire the extra work of broiling it prior to serving. Taking that step makes it stand out, and by that token, it's worth the try.
Even forgetting the labor that Church's puts into its mac and cheese, we can't ignore the authentic flavor. Getting bursts of true-blue cheddar with every forkful is a satisfying part of the experience, and you get it from all angles in both the browned bits and the sauce. You won't be saying there's "too much" or "not enough" -- Church's gets it just right.
In the takeout sphere, Panera veers pricier in the budget department. But if you ask us, splurging on the mac & cheese will always be a wise investment for satisfying your cravings. From top to bottom, these cheese-coated noodles have you covered for creamy decadence. The dish is mix-and-matchable with any sandwich or soup, or get a bowl (or for carb-lovers, the bread bowl) to really dig into the brilliance. The flavorful white cheddar, oversized shells, thick sauce ... it's hard to compete with its wholesome warmth.
Upon breaking things down, it's clearly a signature dish for good reason. The cheese sauce clings beautifully to the springy noodles while being smooth enough to glide over the pasta. These aren't any old shells; Panera uses pipettes which remain one of our favorite shapes for viscous cheese sauces. They're sturdy with ample ridges, and for al dente fans out there, they come in handy for hoarding the melty cheese. At most it's a little salty, but otherwise, keep it in your back pocket for a rainy day.
Our cheesy showdown has been brought to a close: Chick-fil-A is the cream of the crop, cornering the mac market with its gourmet flourishes and mouthwatering presentation. From our research, much of the feedback went above the typical enthusiasm. According to some fans, the overall taste gets stunningly close to the scratch-made styles mom used to make.
The "special blend of cheeses," truly lives up to the chain's own words, comprised of a winning trio of cheddar, Parmesan, and Romano. The cheddar, of course, strikes a traditional note, but it's quickly shaken up with funky hints from the Italian specialties, both underrated choices considering they're popular in loads of pasta dishes. The browned layer of cheese is the star of the show, and the chain doesn't take the undertaking lightly, since it's broiled prior to serving.
The waffle fries might win out for notoriety, but suffice it to say, the chicken empire has got a bonafide classic on its hands. Your nuggets won't be in better company.
Read the original article on Mashed.