As temperatures dip, few things say "warm and cozy" as well as a piping hot plate of macaroni and cheese. Gooey and scrumptious, this comfort food is a favorite for many people, no matter the age. From classic macs to pasta spruced up with bacon, vegetables and truffles, all across the city restaurants are churning out some prime examples of the dish. One is the often-lauded butter-poached Maine lobster mac at Frank Bonanno's Mizuna, which is such an iconic dish in Denver that it almost goes without saying. But just to give the competition a chance, we're naming ten others, from fresh favorites to longtime standbys. Here are the ten best mac and cheese dishes in Denver, listed in alphabetical order (save for the winner of this year's Best Mac and Cheese, which is on top).
2875 Blake Street
At this RiNo pub and brewery, it's hard to pick which is better — the innovative hard ciders made by C Squared (the in-house cider company) or the macaroni and cheese. While the lavender-laced Lila cider does satisfy, given the nature of this list, it is, of course, the pasta that triumphs. But what makes this version so good that it already won the Best Of award this year? For starters, chef Brandon Muncy uses six different cheeses, including cheddar, Jack, cream cheese, Parmesan and, in a surprise twist, Brie and blue cheese. The result is a pile of penne noodles coated with a thick blanket of tangy, melty goodness that twangs your tastebuds in a completely pleasing way. In fact, it's not unlike the tart effect of the cider, making the two a match made in brewpub heaven. Get a small cup for an appetizer or indulge in the whole pot, served "O.G." style or with a Pasture, Earth or Sea side (meat, veggies or seafood chosen at the chef's discretion).
Del Frisco’s Grille
100 Saint Paul Street
Lately it feels like Cherry Creek is booming with tasty dining options, and if you're looking for a perfect plate of macaroni and cheese, this year-old spot has what you need. Enter the truffle mac. Now, there's cheese and then there's the heavy white layer of creamy cheesiness that coats every piece of radiatori pasta in this side dish. Made with a classic béchamel thickened with Gruyere and Parmesan, the unbelievably thick sauce oozes and pulls apart in just the right way so that each bite has a balance. Chef Dan Kane tops each order with toasted garlic breadcrumbs, a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves and a drizzle of truffle oil. It's one of the richer versions, for sure, but completely addicting. And it won't break the bank at only $8.50; not bad for a Del Frisco's joint.
Guard and Grace
1801 California Street
Sometimes you don't want your macaroni and cheese to be a heavy, all-encompassing dish. If this idea fits your mood, then consider ordering the truffle-laced version from this sleek downtown steakhouse by chef Troy Guard. For starters, the sauce proves lighter than most, a feat considering that it's rich with Swiss Gruyere and cream. Then there's the truffle — an aromatic trove of truffle. But don't be fooled: All those lovely black specks aren't the real deal. There are diced trumpet mushroom mixed in to keep from overpowering the pasta. Keep in mind that you can only order this $14 macaroni and cheese as a side dish, but oh, what a portion. It's big enough to be a main course if you wish, though sharing it with friends while indulging in a steak is completely acceptable.
Highland Tap & Burger
2219 West 32nd Avenue
At first bite, you may not understand why this LoHi joint's macaroni and cheese made the list, but just wait. As your palate adjusts to the surprisingly light cream sauce, your tastebuds will sing with a tangy, almost sharp flavor. Part of the joy radiating from this dish comes from the addition of Tempter IPA from Telluride Brewing (though the IPA does change from time to time). The other ingredients that really make this a winner come in the form of glorious cheese: Fontina, aged white cheddar and Parmesan. Then the pasta gets topped with housemade breadcrumbs and more Parmesan, and the cast-iron pan gets a turn under the broiler, which adds a crispy cap to the otherwise gooey creation. For $11.50, you can enjoy your mac and cheese next to the roaring fire on the outside patio, cozied up to the bar to watch a game, or just kicking it with friends at one of the many kid-friendly tables.
2826 Larimer Street
At Owlbear, which closed at Finn's Manor this spring but expects to open across the street in a new home in August, you'll find one darn fine macaroni and cheese. Owner Karl Fallenius puts nearly as much effort into this side as he does for the meats themselves. Whether you order a $3 small, $6 medium or $12 large, each serving is filled with penne pasta coated in a sauce made from butter, onion, garlic, Gorgonzola, Fontina, Parmesan, mozzarella, mustard and paprika. While that seems like a lot for pasta, the ingredients all work in perfect harmony. A sprinkling of chipotle flakes on top gives it some smokiness to help rival that of the beef and pork. While you can't enjoy this mac and cheese right now, it's definitely one worth waiting for.
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River and Woods
2328 Pearl Street, Boulder
Even if you can't snag a table in the forest-like back yard of this Boulder newbie, it's well worth a visit just to try Aunt Penny’s Mac n’ Cheese. The dish gets executed by chef Daniel Asher and his crew, but the actual recipe comes from Laura Bloom, a friend of the owner's. Unlike your run-of-the-mill pasta, this one stars a mail-order cheese-in-a-can called Cougar Gold. This special cheese has been produced by the Washington State University’s Dairy Department since the 1940s, and we would be surprised to find another Colorado restaurant using it. The flavor is that of a sharp-aged cheddar cheese, tangy and rich, with creaminess that works well with large ovals of orecchiette pasta, Hazel Dell mushrooms and Olathe organic corn (when they can get it). The chef also tops each order with crumbled Boulder potato chips to give this $13 entree a unique salty crunch.
Steuben's Food Service
523 East 17th Avenue
7355 Ralston Road, Arvada
There's something about a classic macaroni and cheese that makes it the ultimate comfort food. Is it the rich gooey-ness, the satisfying umami flavor or the warming way this menu item goes down? Who knows — but we do know that both the uptown and Arvada Steuben's have continued to make one of the best versions around, and arguably the most straightforward. Constructed with a seven-cheese béchamel sauce, it's simple, creamy and completely solid. Best part: If you want to add to the dish, Steuben's has no problem with that. In fact, there's a list to choose from on the menu: Throw in lobster, bacon, green chile, some fried Brussels sprouts — you name it, and it can be whipped right in. Order a side for $4 or entree portion for $8, and if you can't eat it all, the dish reheats well at home.
Three Little Griddles
6040 South Gun Club Road, Aurora, 303-693-4100
10111 Inverness Main Street, Englewood, 303-953-1987
Don't be fooled by the seemingly boring bowl of macaroni and cheese this casual eatery serves you; as soon as you dip a spoon into the velvety pile of elbow noodles, you'll be hooked. This creation comes thanks to chef Kelly Garman, the son of proprietors Ron and Francine Garman, who brilliantly combines mozzarella, jack, cheddar and surprisingly, cream cheese into the mix. Then, to add another layer of depth, he also chops up thick-cut bacon to help give the pasta a smoky kick. The Garmans opened their first restaurant in Aurora in 2014, and followed with their second location in Englewood this year. No matter which one you visit, you can get this $8.50 dish for lunch or brunch every day.
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Wazee Supper Club
1600 15th Street
Normally a fried macaroni and cheese wouldn't make the list, but when it comes to this tried-and-true venue's Amazeballs, we have a real winner. First of all, $10 gets you five billiard-ball-sized spheres filled with piping hot pasta and enough oozing cheese that if you were to put it all in a bowl, you would have dinner for two. Next, the aforementioned filling also comes laced with bits of fresh jalapeno and smoky applewood bacon, adding even more richness and a bit of spice to the dish. Finally, the lightly breaded and just-fried balls are resting in a pool of homemade queso, just in case you don't think there's enough cheese inside. Head downtown to pig out on an order of the fried mac and cheese while settling into the Wazee's soft aqua-colored booths, or share a plate with your friends at the bar.
Work & Class
2500 Larimer Street
If you order the $5 petite side of mac and cheese chef Dana Rodriguez whips up at this hot spot, you may wish you had gotten the $10 larger size. After all, this pale yellow-orange version gets a distinct tang thanks to six-year-aged Wisconsin cheddar, a flavor that causes the mouth to water and brain to crave another bite. The pasta dish also contains a sauce of butter, onion, fresh thyme, cream and Parmesan, a combination that helps lighten an otherwise heavy order. Get this menu item along with one of W&C's crisp salads and a glass of wine, and sit back and enjoy a simple and satisfying dinner at this superb Ballpark neighborhood joint.