"Apparently pork is the new cheese"*
At last weekend's SF Food Wars' Return of the Mac Battle Royale with Cheese throwdown, whimsy (free mustaches) and gimmicks (fried mac and cheese balls on an ice cream cone) went head-to-head with inventive and accomplished cookery. Held at boxy new venue Public Works, the event showcased a wide variety of culinary and aesthetic styles.
Subtly named entries like "Sleazy Cheesy Bacon Mac" and "Piggy Cups of Cheesy Love" hinted at the unofficial theme here, where exactly half of the 16 competitors threw pork in the mix. Our fear: Adding bacon or pork belly is the lazy chef's crutch. Like comedian Jim Gaffigan says, "Bacon is the food they wrap around other foods to make them better." At Saturday's competition, however, there were few duds in the mix. The pork served to enhance the macs, rather than prop them up (though our hearts went out to the glum vegetarian in line behind us).
SFoodie's personal favorite was the bluntly titled "Pork Belly Mac," submitted by Jazzy B'z Recipez. As the name suggests, there wasn't a lot of flash here, no jalapeno-infused olive oil or butternut puree. With only Coleman Hampshire pork, cheese, and "a bit of salt and pepper," Jazzy B managed to far outshine fancier colleagues. This one rated third with the judges.
"The Crusty Vermonter," submitted by the ¢#€€$€ team, was another standout. Sweet apples, sharp cheddar, and salty bacon mixed it up in a balance both hearty and subtle. It was served with little sides of pickles (unnecessary) and mild slaw (good for texture and crunch). This one got the People's Choice Honorable Mention. A gasp rippled through the crowd after the chef's big reveal: The cheese sauce was 40 percent Velveeta.
Also worth mentioning was "Quack and Cheese," submitted by the salty Fowl Mouthed Ladies. Despite the name, this was a pointedly grownup dish - duck confit, farmstead Gouda, and caramelized onions in béchamel, topped with arugula. The Fowl Mouths hooted "fuck yeah!" when they got their second-place award.
The judges' first choice was Boffo Cart's hefty "Vermont Cheese Forest," which combined maple-glazed pork lardon with Vermont white cheddar, summer savory, and black pepper, all topped with candied bacon. The People's Choice Award was the only vegetarian winner of the day, SF Delicious Catering's "Smoked Up Mac," which topped Fontina and smoked Gouda with fresh jalapenos, then served it in a handsome little baked Asiago cup.
There were other notable entries, but somewhere into 16 heavy mac and cheese dishes the palate starts to numb. It felt good to escape into the honey-sweet sunshine after so much dedicated cheese ingestion. Note to selves: Judging from how we felt on Sunday, lactose hangovers are real.
*Twitter entry from one of the attendees.