Macaroni and cheese, a generally perfect combination, is one of those rare foods whose processed versions, orange cheese and all, often just taste better than its artisanal iterations. Whether that’s purely a product of nostalgia for Kraft stove-top varieties, or because highly processed foods are engineered to be more addictive, it feels like a missed opportunity that more chains aren’t, like Chick-fil-A as of today, serving mac and cheese alongside their fries and nuggets.
But even before Chick-fil-A jumped on the cheese-slathered macaroni train, a few enterprising fast-food and fast-casual brands had already pioneered the art of the quick-serve mac (for many chains, the secret is that it’s probably pre-made, either kept frozen or stored in warm batches).
Some of those chains, like KFC and Popeyes, are oriented around southern-style fried chicken, so giving another nod to soul food with a side of mac and cheese makes sense for brand identity. Others, like Boston Market, lean into Thanksgiving or family meal traditions by offering mac and cheese with mashed potatoes, rotisserie chicken, sweet corn, and cornbread. And then there are the fast-casual chains — Panera Bread, Noodles & Company — that dress up the dish with nicer cheeses and real dine-in silverware, striving for a bougier image even while serving the comfort food of our childhoods.
Having grown up in the suburbs and eaten all of those mac and cheeses at one point or another in my life, I feel uniquely qualified to judge those national, chain-ified offerings. May I present a ranking:
A perfectly okay, albeit basic, example of a fast-food mac and cheese. The noodles trend towards mushy, and the cheese can sometimes be grainy.
A favorite of Anthony Bourdain’s, this mac and cheese is about on par with KFC’s, only creamier. I find that it often needs more seasoning when the sauce is too watery and thus blander.
3. Boston Market
The rotisserie chain’s bright orange mac and cheese tastes pretty similar to Kraft’s classic box version. The big distinguishing factor here is the rotini noodles, which trap the cheese sauce in between their spirals, resulting in a satisfying — possibly perverse — squish with every bite.
2. Panera Bread
Made with white cheddar, for a change of pace, Panera Bread’s mac and cheese is intensely rich and creamy, almost to the point of excess. In my teenage years, when Panera was the ultimate after-school hangout for high schoolers with sophistication, it was not uncommon to see teens ordering mac and cheese in a bread bowl, as few but 16-year-old metabolisms can handle.
1. Noodles & Company
You should not be surprised to learn that a purveyor of noodle dishes knows how to put out a bowl of mac and cheese. This version has good flavor, the right cheese-to-noodle ratio, and has achieved a superior level of texture through the final sprinkling of unmelted shredded cheese on top. The pro move here is to try the classic, unadorned variety before advancing to barbecue pork mac, complete with crispy jalapeños. Sure, one could argue that Noodles & Company — with its stripped-down version of table service and bussing — is a touch too polished to be ranked in the same list as KFC and Popeyes, but to that I say: who cares, it’s good.
Note: I am told that Bojangles, Roy Rogers, Wawa, and a few smaller, regional chains also serve mac and cheese. I have never been to these places and thus cannot accurately judge their offerings, hence their exclusion from this list, sorry!!