Food & Drink

Mac and Cheese Gets an Artsy Upgrade on Area Menus

Chef Jesse Sandlin, who features a creative version of the classic comfort dish at all of her Baltimore City restaurants, sees it as a blank canvas.
Mac and cheese with smoked chicken breast at Sally O's. —Photography by Justin Tsucalas

While not exactly a new trend, macaroni and cheese has stood the test of time ever since the first recipe found its way stateside in 1769, after Thomas Jefferson is said to have first tasted it in France. (In fact, he was so taken with the creamy combination of noodles and cheese, he later served it at a state dinner.)

First flourishing in the South, then making its way across every kiddie menu (and dorm room) in America, it’s been a comfort-food staple for all ages ever since. Perhaps its peak was in 1937, during the Great Depression when Kraft Foods introduced boxed macaroni and cheese, which cost 19 cents a meal and served four.

Since then, the dish has gotten an artsy upgrade, whether that means adding ingredients such as lobster, pulled pork, or truffle oil.

In Baltimore, the reigning queen of the popular dish is chef Jesse Sandlin, who features mac and cheese at all of her Baltimore City restaurants (Bunny’s Buckets & Bubbles, Sally O’s, and The Dive).

“It’s a super classic comfort food, and it’s also a blank canvas,” she says.

Through the years, Sandlin has topped her white mac and cheese with dried porcini breadcrumbs and her more classic Velveeta version with Sriracha Cheez-Its and bacon bits. Two current varieties are elbow noodles coated in Monterey jack, Parmesan, white cheddar, and Oaxaca cheese atop a smoked chicken breast at Sally O’s, and a bechamel-based version topped with Ritz crackers and panko toasted with brown butter and herbs at Bunny’s.

“I loved Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese as a kid,” says Sandlin. “I was a latchkey kid, so I had a lot of boil-and-bag meals, stuff I could microwave and TV dinner-type stuff. I still have a love for it. It’s a very nostalgic food for me.”