This barbecue joint has some of Alabama’s best mac and cheese

augusts
Bean, short ribs, sausage, pulled pork and mac and cheese at Augusts Barbeque in Sylacauga.

Augusts Barbeque, U.S. Hwy 280. Childersburg, Alabama. Find their Facebook page here.

I’ve been on mac and cheese hiatus for a while. I guess I haven’t been inspired by the carby goodness – until now.

Because man oh man, I recently ate the best mac and cheese of my life and I can’t stop thinking about it.

At work, my colleagues and I went on a statewide journey to find Alabama’s Best BBQ Sandwich (I know, hard job, right?) and throughout our travels, I had a lot of mac and cheese as a side dish. You know me. Even when I’m eating three pulled pork sandwiches a day, I still save room for the mac.

And I had lots of tasty mac and cheese. Way too much, really. But one really stood out, so much that I couldn’t stop eating it (even though I had a belly full of pork).

That mac and cheese? It’s from August’s Barbeque in Sylacauga.

This mac and cheese is just glorious, y’all. Glorious. If mac and cheese were SEC quarterbacks, this one would be Cam Newton. You can definitely rely on it to get you through tough times and 24-point deficits.

In all seriousness, this side is creamy, cheesy goodness. You’re not going to find better mac elsewhere.

One thing, though: Augusts’ mac and cheese is so in demand that they often run out of it before the end of the day. So if you want to try it, make sure to get there early.

Read more about my barbecue journey here, and here are five things you need to know about Augusts Barbecue.

Should you order it? Yes, yes, yes.

Rating: 10 out of 10

 

 

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Melt — Birmingham, Alabama

The Mac Melt is a grilled cheese with mac and cheese.
The Mac Melt is a grilled cheese with mac and cheese.

There are so many things in life that shouldn’t work out but do. Like Jimmy from “Degrassi” being a successful rapper and dating Rihanna. Or the 2013 Iron Bowl. Or Canadian tuxedos.

One more item to add to that list: Melt’s mac and cheese + grilled cheese sandwich, also known as the Mac Melt.

Yes, you read that right. Melt – located in the Birmingham neighborhood of Avondale — gets a boatload of mac and cheese and sticks it between a grilled cheese on Texas toast. On its own, each item sounds pretty tasty – everyone loves mac and cheese, everyone loves buttery bread, everyone loves grilled cheese – but together, it doesn’t sound that appealing.

I ventured to the brick-and-mortar restaurant with a friend on a recent lunch break to try it out (sometimes Melt’s food truck, Matilda, can be seen roaming around town if you can’t make it to Avondale).  Just a warning: If you want to spend your lunch break with the good folks of Melt, you better get there early. The place fills up quickly.

About 10 minutes after ordering, my mac-and-cheese sandwich and side of fruit ($9 combined for both) arrived. (Yes, Mom, I do eat some fruit. Don’t worry.) The fruit was fresh and delicious, but let’s start real talk here: No one cares about fruit when you have a mac-and-cheese melt in front of you. It’s like choosing to eat a Big Mac when you there’s a Hamburger FonFon beside it — it just doesn’t happen.

Proof that I also ate fruit.
Proof that I also ate fruit.

The melt was indescribable. No, really: I have no way to describe what it tasted like. My friend sampled the sandwich and felt the same way. It was like nothing we had ever tried before. The penne pasta was excellently cooked and covered in lots of gooey cheese, and the restaurant definitely didn’t skimp on the mac. And the bread never got soggy despite all that cheese weight. It was a perfect combo. Seriously, y’all. I know I have a love of bold statements, but really: If sandwiches were Beatles songs, this would be the chorus in “Hey Jude.” It’s fun and triumphant and oh-so-good.

And pro tip: If you’re not in an adventurous mood or just want to get something else on the menu, you can still get plain ol’ mac as a side item for $5. It may not have you singing the Beatles, but it’ll be well worth it.

Should you order it? Yes, yes, yes.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Want to go?

Melt, 4105 4th Ave. S, Birmingham, meltbham.com, (205) 917-5000

Ajax Diner — Oxford, Mississippi

ajaxLots of people ask you lots of questions when you vacation to Mississippi. Why are you there? Are you having fun? Where are you from that makes you want to vacation in Mississippi? Did you get lost? Seriously, why are you there?

Dudefriend and I made our way to Water Valley (Read more about the small town in this Garden and Gun story), Oxford and Clarksdale about a month ago for a three-day getaway and no, we weren’t lost. We went for the music (Clarksdale is the birthplace of the blues) and to be off-the-grid (really, you’re off the grid. I didn’t have cell service half of the time). But we mostly went for the food.

Oh man, y’all. The food.

From tamales to soul food to barbecue, Mississippi’s got you covered. That was pretty evident on the first day, when we stopped at Ajax Diner on the Square in Oxford.

Ajax is pretty much an institution in Oxford and from what I had read, we should expect a crowd. We got tremendously lucky, though, because we arrived around noon on a Wednesday before classes began, so the town was pretty empty. However, the diner was still busy and we squeezed into the last booth available. (Added bonus: There was a print above our booth that said “Prince loves Ajax” and I’m a sucker for anything relating to Prince.)

Full disclosure: No matter the day, I love to start vacation with a cocktail or beer (or two). But ordering a cocktail at noon on a Wednesday at most places will get you a judging glare. Not at Ajax. After sitting down, the server came over immediately and took our bloody mary order and didn’t even flinch. Five minutes later our super well-made bloody mary came out from the full bar. Yes, a diner with a full bar. I was sold before the food even came out a few minutes later.

And, again, oh, man. The food.

I ordered fried catfish, squash casserole and mac and cheese – a very orange/yellowish plate, but whatever. I was on vacation. You don’t eat greens when you’re on vacation.

The catfish was pretty stellar – it was fried perfectly with a great crunch and lots of spices. And the squash casserole was bangin’, too – lots of butter and cheese. The entire point of squash casserole is getting a semi-healthy food – squash – and turning it into an artery-blocking side, and it definitely succeeded.

But that mac and cheese. Y’all, that mac and cheese.

(Just a reminder of how delicious it looks:)

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Actually, it should probably be renamed cheese and macaroni, because the noodles were swimming in some seriously legit Cheddar. It was absolute gooey goodness. To top it off, they sprinkled lots of pepper in it, giving it a killer spicy aftertaste. Even though they gave a solid portion and I had plenty more food to eat, I wanted more. I wanted lots more.

“How do people sing the blues in this state when this exists?” I asked Dudefriend.

I then “made” him take a bite, and his eyes went all wide. “You’re going to say this is the best, right? Because this is definitely the best mac I’ve had.”

Is it the best mac I’ve had? No, but I’ve eaten a lot of mac in my 29 years. Is it in the top five? Oh yeah. It’s so good it almost makes me want to say “Hotty Toddy.” Almost.

Should you try this mac and cheese? Yes

Rating: 9 out of 10

More info here

Walton’s Southern Table — Huntsville, Ala.

IMG_2381Walton’s Southern Table on a Saturday afternoon is the perfect spot to people watch: There are purple-haired grannies at one booth, hipsters at another, and engineers from Redstone Arsenal at another.

The reason the meat-and-three restaurant, which is on the busy intersection of Airport Road and Whitesburg Drive in Huntsville, has attracted such a diverse crowd? The food is ridiculously delicious, and the prices are on point.

We stumbled into the restaurant for a late lunch on a recent Saturday afternoon and were immediately seated. A server came over and took our order (and fielded our questions expertly), and within five minutes the piping hot food was on our table.

And it all barely fit on the table. I ordered the pot roast with mac and cheese (obvs.) and strawberry pretzel salad; Dudefriend got chicken and dressing, hashbrown casserole, fried green tomatoes and pinto beans. We’re both hearty eaters, but the amount of food was almost intimidating. I stared at the feast, eyes all agog, and the server sensed my hesitance: “It’s a lot of food, I know.”

But I shouldn’t have hesitated because the food was SO. GOOD. You know how Leslie Knope feels about JJ’s Diner on “Parks and Recreation?” Well, if I lived in the Rocket City, Walton’s would be my JJ’s Diner. The pot roast (with carrots and potatoes) was tender and had a dash of nutmeg that balanced the savory gravy. The slab of strawberry pretzel salad was so large that I don’t think an entire defensive line could finish it. Almost everything on Dudefriend’s plate was spot on as well. The chicken and dressing was legit chicken and dressing, not dressing with just a bit of chicken like other restaurants. And he let me take a bite of the hashbrown casserole, which was one of my favorite dishes I’ve eaten all year. I wanted more, but he was a bit greedy, and I can’t blame him one bit: it was comfort food at its finest.

But here’s the thing: Out of all this stellar food, the mac and cheese was just OK. It was definitely cheesy goodness, but it didn’t stand out. After trying all the other food first, I definitely expected more. Don’t get me wrong: If you’re jonesing for mac and cheese it will hit the spot, but I’m not sure I can recommend it when that hashbrown casserole is on the menu. Seriously, that hashbrown casserole, y’all. Love poems should be written about it.

So my recommendation? Go to Walton’s Southern Table ASAP. And take whoever you want, from your grandparents to your too-cool foodie friends, because they’ll all love it. Wear your stretchy jeans or sweatpants. And get that hashbrown casserole. And that mac and cheese, if you’re in the mood for it. If not, don’t bother.

Should you try the mac and cheese?: Eh, whatever you want

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Here’s Walton’s Southern Table’s information

My colleague Matt Wake reviewed Walton’s here.

Bottega Cafe — Birmingham, Alabama

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Bottega Cafe

2240 Highland Ave. South, Birmingham

http://bottegarestaurant.com

A Frank Stitt restaurant serving a bad dish is like Justin Timberlake releasing a subpar single: It just rarely happens.  Keeping this in mind,  a friend and I recently made our way to Stitt’s Bottega Cafe in Birmingham.

We were the earlybirds  on a Saturday night — we got there around 5:15, and just a few tables were occupied.  We got our app — homemade potato chips and charred onion dip — about 10 minutes after ordering. The chips were crispy and delicious and addicting. I could have easily eaten them all day. And the onion dip was stellar. A bit of a tang and creamy goodness.

But I wasn’t at Bottega Cafe for the apps — I was there  for the mac and cheese. More importantly, the mac and cheese and small salad, which the restaurant offers for $12.  Right as we were finishing the app — perfect timing! — the entrees came out.

HOLY. CRAP.

If mac and cheese dishes were pieces of art (and really, they should be, but that’s another story, another day), then this mac and cheese would be the Mona Lisa. Or the Sistine Chapel. Or anything breathtaking, really. It almost looks too perfect to eat. Almost.

The mac and cheese was a bit too hot (a problem I don’t mind to have) when it arrived, so I snacked on the salad a bit. It was fresh and tasty. But once again, I wasn’t there for the salad. I was there for the mac.

And oh my goodness. You know when you have a long week and just need a drink (and maybe a slice or three of pizza)? And when you take the first sip of the drink, everything bad about the week seems to go away?

Well, that’s what the first bite of this mac and cheese is like. It probably has healing powers. (Definitely tell your Facebook friends who are into essential oils.)  It’s creamy and baked to perfection and tastes as good as it looks. Another added perk: It doesn’t taste as heavy as most of the other mac and cheeses I’ve tried — it could be because of the side salad, or magical powers — so there’s no food coma afterward.

The serving size was so large that I had leftovers, so I had it boxed up and took it (and the salad) home. Another another miracle happened: the leftover mac and cheese was even better, if possible, and the salad wasn’t wilted. I meant to save some of the leftovers to share, but I ate it all with zero shame. Sharing is caring unless it involves mac and cheese, kids — then sharing is insane.

Should you try the mac and cheese? Yes, duh

Rating: 9 out of 10

Taco Mama — Mountain Brook, Alabama

(null)Taco Mama

Locations: Mountain Brook, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa

Website

When you think “mac and cheese,” Mexican restaurants probably don’t come to mind. But if Taco Mama is any indication, you should consider mac and cheese with your burritos.

Taco Mama has three locations: Mountain Brook’s Crestline Village, Huntsville and downtown Tuscaloosa. Dudefriend and I made our way to the Crestline location on a recent Friday night. The place was packed: there were about six people in front of us in line, and almost every table inside and outside was occupied. After a 15-minute wait, we ordered and got the last empty table inside.

Obligatory warning: If you’re not into family-friendly restaurants, you may want to think twice before making your way to the Crestline location. Almost every table besides ours was occupied by families with children, but remember: it’s 2015. All of the kids were playing on their iPads (thank you forever, Steve Jobs) and digging into their food and were probably more well-behaved than your friend who still tells “that’s what she said” jokes. So, there are a lot of kids and parents, but you’re not going to get judged for ordering a marg or two. We certainly didn’t.

After a 10-minute wait, we got our food. I ordered the mix-and-match two taco deal. I picked the Mayor (marinated chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, creamy cilantro pesto and queso fresco) which was a bit above average, but luckily the Alabama Redneck (roasted pull pork, ancho chile sauce, pickles, Mama’s Chipotle Barbecue Sauce) was flavorful and phenomenal. Definitely a must-try. The tacos came with lots of chips and salsa (fresh with a nice spicy kick) and a choice of a side. I went with the Mexican Mac and Cheese because that’s what I’m here for, y’all.

With a name like Mexican Mac and Cheese, you expect something with a bit of a kick. Maybe some jalapenos. Maybe some red peppers. Maybe some corn. There was none of this — it was just your standard mac and cheese with ziti noodles and four cheeses. But I forgave Taco Mama for the poor naming after the first bite. It was super hot and creamy and cheesy and everything mac and cheese should be. And although Taco Mama gives you an ample helping of the mac (and plenty of other food), I was bummed when I ate the last bite — even though it was physically impossible for me to eat anything else. That’s how tasty it is.

The best part? Taco Mama’s prices are on point. All of this fresh food (two tacos, chips and salsa, mac) cost $9. If you just want a side of mac it’ll cost you $3; and a kids’ serving (plus chips and salsa) will just cost you $4.

It’s definitely worth the wait in line.

Should you try the mac? Yes oh my goodness Yes.
Rating: 8.5

Fried Green Tomato’s — Hoover, Alabama

Just looking at this photo of Fried Green Tomato's mac and cheese makes me hungry.
Just looking at this photo of Fried Green Tomato’s mac and cheese makes me hungry.
Fried Green Tomato’s
1615 Montgomery Highway; 205-824-5000  http://eatfgt.com/
Mac and cheese: $1.99

OK, so it’s probably obvious: I love a good meat-and-three. The food’s almost always solid, and there’s usually a mac and cheese option. And when I heard that the owners of the iconic Irondale Cafe (think Fannie Flagg’s inspiration for “Fried Green Tomatoes”) had opened a restaurant in Hoover, I was all in.

And apparently, I’m not the only one. When Dudefriend and I arrived around 1 p.m. on a Saturday, the place was packed. Seven people were in line in front of us, and no tables were available inside the ample dining space. (A few remained in front of the restaurant, but we wanted as far away from the 100-degree heat as possible). But in the few minutes that we perused the day’s menu (among the options: chicken pot pie, buttermilk chicken, country-fried steak and baked chicken), we were at the front of the line. After the courteous and very helpful cashier took our order, our food came out one minute later. That’s right: One minute. You can’t get quicker service at a fast-food chain.

Luckily, a table had cleared off by then, and we were able to survey our grub. (Fried Green Tomato’s gives nice, Southern-sized portions, but not so much that you feel the need to take a nap under the table.) And man, the mac and cheese looked legit. There was lots of cheese and infinite creaminess. Best of all, there were breadcrumbs (cornbread, to be exact) splayed across the noodles — a detail I definitely appreciate.

But did it taste as good as it looks? Fortunately, yes. The noodles were warm and you could taste bursts of Cheddar. And the breadcrumbs balanced the creaminess of the sauce, making the mac taste much lighter than it actually was.

I had plenty of delicious food in front of me (your grandma will want the recipe for the fried buttermilk chicken tenders because they’re even better than hers), but I kept going back to the mac. Forget about the fried green tomatoes: the mac is king here.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Should you order it? Yes