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

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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