Mac and cheese. It’s the perfect comfort food — a satiating blend of carbs and cheesy creaminess. After a stressful day of school, it’s a perfect treat to make yourself feel just a little better. Fortunately, USC’s campus has no shortage of mac and cheese options.
The Daily Trojan has sampled every prepared mac and cheese (there are 10 of them!) that students can get on campus or at USC Village. Here is a definitive ranking to all the cheesy goodness you can get:
This is undoubtedly the most disappointing mac and cheese option out there. Wahlburgers describes it as being made with cheddar and smoked mozzarella, which sounds like it would make a tangy, earthy cheese sauce, but I’m not sure you can even call the final product a sauce; it tastes more like they took a piece of processed American cheese and barely melted it into a gooey mess. That mess is then simply plopped on top of penne pasta, not mixed in, and too thick to properly mix. Added to that, the penne is undercooked, resulting in an incongruous, completely bland eating experience. The garlic parmesan breadcrumb garnish is a necessary addition to the dish, but it doesn’t do enough to save it. Also, it comes in a relatively small portion only slightly larger than that of Seeds’, yet it costs more than double the price: a whopping $6.95. Not a good look, Wahlburgers.
Despite visible spices like bits of parsley and black pepper, EVK’s mac offering is a very one-dimensional cheese flavor. The sauce itself is quite runny, and has a slight, unpleasant curdled texture. Although it looks like the Village Dining Hall’s mac and cheese — elbow macaroni with bright yellow sauce — the taste is considerably worse If you’re going to go to a dining hall for Mac and cheese, make it the Village.
Moreton and Fig
For such a fancy restaurant, it’s offering of mac and cheese is only average. It starts with penne pasta that’s too small foreach bite to hold much sauce. The sauce is great — it’s creamy and velvety, and packs a buttery, perfectly spiced flavor — but it hardly passes for a cheese sauce. It has hints of cheese flavor, but it isn’t the star of the show, as it should be in a good mac and cheese. The breadcrumbs sprinkled on top add a good balance to the texture, but they’re too fine, so the texture can become slightly grainy and unappealing. The price of $7.50 is reasonable for a restaurant like Moreton Fig, but the portion is still relatively small.
California Pizza Kitchen
CPK tries too hard on what it bills as chipotle mac and cheese. It’s taken the item off the menu at Ronald Tutor Campus Center, but it’ll still make it for you if you ask. The sauce is creamy and cheesy enough, but it falls flat in flavor. It’s riddled with large pieces of cilantro, creating an unpleasant imbalance in taste from bite to bite, and the spice overpowers any flavor the cheese brings to the table. Twists on mac and cheese, like adding sriracha or other complementary flavors is a great way to elevate the relatively simple dish, but sometimes simplicity is the best feature of a good mac, especially one meant to be a comfort food. At $7.29, the dish is reasonably priced for a full meal.
Tastewise, this mac and cheese is just fine. It doesn’t try to accomplish much with its flavor, so it delivers a traditional cheesy flavor. But while the taste is fine, the texture is lacking. The sauce is almost definitely made with a bechamel base, a cream sauce thickened by flour. This means that the already heavy carb load that the overcooked mac delivers is bolstered by another layer of carbs in the sauce. No one’s eating mac and cheese to be healthy, but the result is a glob of one-note mac that is way too heavy and leaves munchers feeling queasy. At $4.95 for such a small portion, don’t go out of your way for this mac — you’re better off spending the extra $0.50 on Lemonade’s Truffle Mac and Cheese.
USC Village Dining Hall
When you think of mac and cheese, the image that appears in your mind is exactly what the Village mac and cheese looks like — elbow macaroni with a bright yellow sauce that’s smooth yet slightly elastic. While it looks delicious, USC Village Dining Hall’s mac lacks flavor, except for the subtlest, most out-of-place chili aftertaste. But the beauty of any dining hall dish is there is plenty of room for customization. Think of this bland mac and cheese as a blank canvas that can be elevated in any number of ways. Treat the salad bar like a condiment bar, and add your favorite flavors to make this mac more complex. I enjoy adding chopped scallions, for a nice crunch and slight sharp flavor.
The Lab Gastropub
Of the mac and cheeses on this list, the Lab’s has the most potent and complex flavor. The cheese is earthy and herbaceous, but simultaneously tangy and buttery. The sauce is dotted with bits of black and pink peppercorn, which add a great balance to the flavor and a bit of bite to the dish. Texture-wise the dish isn’t great: the elbow macaroni is much bigger than traditional macaroni, creating a slightly cumbersome eating experience, and despite advertising breadcrumbs on their menu, the dish has none, creating a mostly one-note texture. At $10, it’s the most expensive mac and cheese on the list, but it’s also a sizeable full meal portion.
Creating the perfect mac and cheese sauce is largely about striking the right balance between the cheesiness and creaminess of the sauce. If it’s too creamy, flavor will be lost; but if it’s too cheesy, the texture might not be smooth enough to make the pasta and the sauce cohesive. Of all the options, Seeds’ mac and cheese has the most balance. Each bite is creamy, but retains some stretchy cheese that adds nuance and flavor to the dish. Besides this, the pasta is largely traditional, sticking to elbow macaroni and simple spices — the only qualm about the dish is that it’s quite greasy. Seeds serves the smallest portion, but also the cheapest at $2.49, so it makes for a perfect quick snack to eat between classes.
A good mac and cheese has a variety of textures. For most dishes, that means including breadcrumbs or drizzling a layer of melted cheese with the pasta and sauce. But there’s a way to create multiple textures with just a pasta and sauce — and Lemonade’s white truffle mac and cheese accomplishes it well. While Lemonade’s traditional counterpart features overcooked pasta that makes it nearly indistinguishable from its very thick sauce, the white truffle mac and cheese pairs al dente elbow macaroni with a much creamier bechamel sauce, creating a perfect balance of consistencies. And the sauce on its own is a winner — the white truffle adds a subtle earthy flavor to the tangy mac, creating a multifaceted burst of flavor in every bite. At $5.50, the dish is a bit pricey for its small size, but the flavor is worth it. .
Honeybird’s generous tray of mac and cheese perfectly captures the true essence of this traditional comfort food while also setting itself apart from the rest of the pack. The dish starts with jumbo, conch shell-shaped pasta — the pasta wraps around on itself, creating a large pocket that allows for the highest cheese-to-pasta ratio. This is particularly great, as the sauce is almost irresistible. With a five-cheese blend, a perfect mix of subtle spices and a dash of cilantro, Honeybird’s sauce manages to deliver all of the creaminess patrons expect from a great mac and cheese without being too heavy or dense. That would be great on its own, but Honeybird takes it a step further, topping the dish with a hefty helping of mozzarella and just enough breadcrumbs to add a dynamic texture without overpowering its primary flavors. Plus, it’s only $5 — an affordable deal for anyone on a college student’s budget.
Ultimately, Honeybird has an affordable, full meal option to satisfy any mac and cheese craving that also tastes much better than those of any of its competitors. For a quicker, on-campus snack that can be bought with dining dollars for, Seeds is the way to go — just avoid Wahlburgers.