Growing up, I had no idea macaroni and cheese existed in any form other than the wretched stuff in the blue box with the powdered neon-orange "cheese." I assumed the devotion that Americans had to the dish was lowbrow hoo-ha. Later, I got a job in college at a pasta restaurant with an old-school chef who thought out his mac to the last detail: classic béchamel sauce made with milk infused with bay leaf, peppercorn and nutmeg; each dish made to order so the pasta wouldn't absorb all the sauce ahead of time; a massive fistful of Wisconsin sharp cheddar to cap it off; and broiling until it was crisp on top. I was smitten—with him and his mac and cheese. As the nights grow colder, I long for that magic balance of subtle flavors, creamy unctuousness and crispy topping. Not so easy to find here in Portland, it turns out.
Elephants Deli (115 NW 22nd Ave., 299-6304): The mac from their hot case ($4.95 per pound) consists of cavatappi—three-inch macaroni spirals—sloshing around in a really rich sauce that tastes like nothing at all. Sure, it's got some cheddar on top, but otherwise it's just white noise. I know what you're thinking, but no, the truffle oil they drizzled on top didn't help at all.
Montage (301 SE Morrison St., 234-1324): You'd have to be highly inebriated to love the overcooked pasta—tossed in cream, accented by waxy shards of cheap Parmesan and suffused with an oddly metallic garlic taste—that they serve at this eastside institution ($5.95). In fact, it seems the owners bank on that fact. I might be back for the just-like-hot-Hamburger Helper "spicy mac" ($5.95) on my next bender, but I certainly won't come around for the sticky white mac.
Mother's Bistro and Bar (409 SW 2nd Ave., 464-1122): This downtown staple's mac of the day ranges widely from white-sauced penne with sundried tomatoes to spiral mac in a mild cheddar sauce with ham and green peppers ($12.95, prices vary). My companion loved the crunchy bits of pepper and onion, but I didn't find the rich sauciness I was after, though the extras were well-chosen.
Jake's Grill (611 SW 10th Ave., 220-1850): The long corkscrew pasta here ($7.95) came absolutely swathed in innocuous melted cheddar with little else to moisten the dish. If you're after stretchy, this is good stuff, at least until it cools slightly and becomes a congealed blob.
Noble Rot (2724 SE Ankeny St., 233-1999): Served in a gratin dish right out of the oven with a crispy bread-crumb topping, creamy sauce, perfectly cooked pasta and chopped chives, this mac specimen was technically perfect ($7). If only it had just a smidgen more cheese flavor, I could get really excited about it.
Echo Restaurant (2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 460-3246): The ubiquitous corkscrew macaroni ($5) here is tucked into a small soufflé dish with just a tiny bit of bread-crumb crispiness to foil the very generous, sharp Vermont cheddar cheese sauce—on a recent visit there was nearly a cup of sauce left after the pasta was all eaten. This was the only mac that made me attempt to hoard it away from the greedy forks of my tasting companions during a recent "mac crawl." When I've got the jones, Echo's macaroni and cheese is the only one I'll head out into the cold for.