Return of the mac

By Allan I. Ross

Old Town barbecue eatery wins with comfort food staple

In 1993, Canadian pop rockers Barenaked Ladies released their signature song, “If I Had $1000000 Dollars,” which included the cute (but bizarre) segment:

“If I had a million dollars/we wouldn’t have to eat Kraft dinners/But we WOULD eat Kraft dinners, we’d just eat more … ”

In concert, this prompts audience members to hurl packages of macaroni and cheese at the stage, but crowd antics this sentimental contain a truism for a generation raised on boxed meals. And that is: macaroni and cheese is damned good eatin’, no matter how much loot you’re pulling.

Primarily viewed as a budget-friendly comfort food, macaroni and cheese can be traced back to 14th century England. Thomas Jefferson, who encountered the dish in Paris, where it was served as an upper class delicacy, brought it to the states. And in Lansing, it’s come full circle — it can be found on the menus of several local dining establishments — albeit in a form far superior to that of the pre-packaged variety. (Case in point: Tavern 109 in Williamston mixes its with lobster.) But when asked who had the best mac and cheese in town, City Pulse readers overwhelmingly picked Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine.

“It’s my all-time favorite food,” said owner Sean Johnson, who opened the Southern-style eatery in Old Town last summer. “If I could do a restaurant with just a mac and cheese, I’d do it. I’d have 15 different kinds.”

Heck, Meat’s menu already allows you to do better than that. You can get a small portion of mac and cheese as one of the sides that come with meals and sandwiches, but you can also get a made-to-order dish as an entrée for $10.50. When you order it that way, you get a choice of any two items, including four meats — bacon, pulled pork, chopped brisket and chopped Texas links — and five vegetarian items — mushrooms, caramelized onions, fresh garlic, jalapenos and roasted red peppers. Even a ninth grader studying permutations will tell you that you get way more than 15 combinations playing mix-and-match.

Johnson said he developed the sauce himself, which falls more toward the thicker end of the floury-to-cheesy continuum. Obviously, we couldn’t get the recipe from him, but he said it consists of the basics: heavy cream, flour, butter and a couple of different kinds of cheese, with garlic and red pepper giving it some kick.

“We make the sauce from scratch every morning,” Johnson said. “And we go through at least 10 to 15 gallons a day, especially on weekends.”

When an order comes in, some of that cheese sauce is mixed with the pasta, which, interestingly, isn’t truly macaroni. Instead, Meat uses cavatappi noodles, which are thicker, corkscrew-shaped tubes.

“I experimented with different kinds of noodles and found that cavatappi worked best,” Johnson said. “It’s a heavier noodle, and it has ridges, which helps it hold on the sauce better.”

After pasta meets cheese, two more types of cheese are sprinkled on top. The whole thing then goes in the oven and 10 minutes later — the best mac and cheese in town.

Heavy demand has prompted Johnson to remodel his dining room, with construction starting this week. He said he’s adding 10 to 15 seats inside as well as a patio, which will fit another 12 outside.

“And I’ve got more changes coming too, that will give us more of that southern barbecue feel,” Johnson said. “I’ve got some exciting things planned.”

Just, you know, don’t throw any at him if you get too excited. Save that for Barenaked Ladies, when they roll into Common Ground in July.

The Dish is a new monthly feature that allows Lansing-area diners to vote on our Facebook wall for their favorite menu items from local restaurants. Next month´s contender: Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches. Be sure to “Like” us and vote for your favorite.

Meat Southern BBQ & Carnivore Cuisine
1224 N. Turner St., Lansing
11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday
(517) 580-4400