Judging the very first Mac-Off, a benefit for Charleston Peace One Day, is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Wait — no it wasn’t. OK, maybe it was a little bit. The idea of tasting 13 different 3-ounce samples of gooey, creamy, rib-sticking stuff may sound drool-worthy, but there’s only so much carbs-and-dairy one’s stomach can handle. And then you’re left with a Sophie’s Choice of sorts: Do you lose control and finish that one serving, or do you hold back, knowing that you’ve got a half-dozen more to go? It’s not easy.
We heard that almost 1,000 tickets had been snatched up prior to the event, which was held at the Visitor’s Center Bus Shed. That’s a lot of people looking to get their mac on, which led to painfully long lines at each of the different stations (especially the beer and wine one). This is a snafu that the organizers will surely work out before the next one, and we’re almost positive that from the success there will be a next one. They should also consider stocking up on trash cans; at times it was difficult to discard your current Styrofoam cup in favor of another one.
Luckily, having gotten there ahead of opening in my capacity as a judge, I was able to try all 13 varieties fairly easily. I’m not going to list my least favorites by name, but there were a few restaurants that offered very traditional mac and cheese, which would be more impressive if they weren’t at a mac and cheese competition.
I’m a sucker for flashy interpretations, so my picks favored those who did just that. Palmetto Cafe cooked up portions right in front of you, with a big vat of bacon hunks cooking between two skillets. The smell alone piqued my taste buds, and the result was a pleasantly soupy dish that I would eat on a night when I’m cold and depressed (and that’s a compliment). King Street Grille took guilty pleasures to the next level by offering mac and cheese egg rolls served with a side of ranch, proof that ranch does indeed go with anything. Poogan’s Porch, a mac served with braised short rib and a reduction sauce, had the best presentation and one of the best flavors. But my favorite had to be 82 Queen. Made with pulled pork and collard greens, it was the only place I allowed myself to go to for seconds. It won my top vote.
I left before the awards, a Critics’ Choice and a People’s Choice, were announced, due to a desperate need to walk off all the mac and cheese. Alas, 82 Queen didn’t win any first prizes; they went to Home Team (Critics’) and Crave (People’s).
Meanwhile, it’s going to be a very long time before I ever eat mac and cheese again.