Bites with Blondie: Denver’s Love Affair with Cheese
I think it’s safe to say we all were a little bummed when Whole Foods Market announced they were discontinuing their Mac & Cheese bar at their Colorado locations. But why, Whole Foods? The classic dish, which started in Italy, quickly became an essential meal for every young American, and still remains a popular menu staple at restaurants across the country.
But this isn’t your average Mac & Cheese anymore.
Denver chefs have said goodbye to processed cheeses like Velveeta and introduced diners to a new and improved hand-crafted dish, filled with more than just fresh cheese. Eateries now take a creative approach to design a dish so gooey, so unique, and so delicious that no one can resist it. Hell, we even host festivals completely devoted to the dish. No, really!
Being a fan of any festival where I can gorge myself, I jumped at the opportunity to cover Denver’s Annual Mac & Cheese Festival. This sold-out festival, hosted by 11 Creative, captured well over 200 attendees anxious to experience fifteen local restaurants as they competed for the title of “Best Mac & Cheese”. A multitude of breweries and distilleries and local artisans and designers also joined in the fun, allowing all festival-goers to drink and shop local. With my photographer in tow, we headed to Number 38 to consume as much cheese as humanly possible—a challenge I happily accepted.
Located in the famed River North Art District, Number 38’s extensive grounds were perfect for such an occasion. Primarily outdoors, the space was laid out well, allowing the crowd to easily maneuver through, and seek shelter in, an industrial garage building, which I took advantage of on the cold evening. Upon entering the gates, we were greeted with smiles from our hosts and given a commemorative Spork, a tasting glass with one voting ticket, and a complimentary beer. With the smell of cheese in the air, my palate started to awaken and tummy began to grumble. With fifteen different chef masterpieces to taste, I got even more excited to see who would be crowned Denver’s Mac & Cheese King.
- The District owner Kerry Condon persuaded our taste buds with their famous Pork Green Chili Mac–the newest creation on the menu. The gooey concoction was filled with just the right amount of heat and a ton of flavor. Fishski Provisions also impressively mixed both green and red hatch chili into their Mac & Cheese, highlighting Colorado’s signature sauce. Also available on the menu or online to order – CBD-Infused Mac! The only food truck to garnish their green chili Mac with a tortilla chip was Mac ‘N’ Noodles, which proved to be the perfect pairing.
- Showcasing their signature Baked Mac, The Whiskey Biscuit offered samples of Cavatappi pasta, and smoked Gouda cheese sauce topped with crunchy breadcrumbs – capturing Southern influences with a modern twist. Growler USA and Tupelo Honey‘s Baked Mac hit the spot, both featuring creamy cheddar cheese, an incredible mixture of spices, topped with crispy onions and breadcrumbs and baked to bubbly perfection.
- Paying homage to its Midwestern Milwaukee roots, Wally’s Wisconsin Tavern ‘s menu features a Loaded Mac ,which featured cheddar Mac, tomatoes, bacon, green onions, and dusted with pretzel bread crumbs—totally elevating its game in the name of comfort food. Showcasing their love of Cajun cuisine, they also featured a Southern Mac packed with spices, chicken and gooey cheese. Catering to the “Wisconsin Diet,” Swanky’s Mac featured the freshest cheddar cheese curds, while the Shanty Supper Club added white cheddar and parmesan topped with fried prosciutto, to create a delicious experience.
- Sugarfire Smokehouse brought an edgy take on the classic by adding their famous pulled pork and sausage to the heaping pile of cheesy Bourbon Mac. Meanwhile, Freshcraft’s brown ale beer cheese was perfectly tangy and sweet, even more so with the addition of peppers, shallots and a pretzel crust. Conveniently parked near the entrance, Gypsy Q put a unique spin on their Mac by crafting the “Mac Attack”, which displayed true culinary genius. Asian egg noodles, cheddar sauce, goat cheese, smoked brisket or pulled pork, topped with crispy onion and kimchi – proving to be the most creative menu item.
- Serving up the spiciest Mac on the menu, Thirsty Lion created a showstopper with their dish, featuring chipotle cream, roasted red peppers, spicy sausage and a four cheese blend, toasted with breadcrumbs – sure to heat any taste bud! The Corner Office delivered their spicy Mac in miniature Chinese take-out boxes, which was fitting as the flavors exuded Asian influences with a kick of Siracha.
Judge’s Choice: Catering by Design – a local catering company, won the coveted award for their insanely delicious Potato Leak Mac & Cheese. The creamy mixture of white cheddar cheese, smooth potatoes and leeks, garnished with a crisp blue potato, won me over and the judges.
People’s Choice: Mac Nation Café – the family- owned and -operated joint, located in the foothills, stole the show with their perfectly crafted Mac & Cheese. The “Colorado” Mac, one of their 32 Mac options on the menu, featured pork green chili, a blend of cheeses, and was garnished with a spicy jalapeno. The people have spoken, and for good reason!
With my cravings met, we spent time perusing a variety of booths showcasing their outdoor apparel for sale, talking with fellow cheese lovers, sampling brews from Crazy Mountain Brewery , Ironton Distillery, and tasting the first local wine made from lemons. The music provided by the DJ was loud and perfect for the occasion, which created a party-like atmosphere. With various bars stationed throughout the event, no attendee went thirsty. Each cocktail on the menu featured a clever name, a fun juice or soda mixture, and a delicious garnish. I chose to sip on the uniquely-named “mac-tini”, featuring local vodka on the rocks with a cheeseball garnish, which warmed my chilled body right up!
Having been to my fair share of foodie events in Denver, this was by far my favorite. All cheese-heads united in solidarity to sample the chef-inspired twists on an American classic, while shopping and drinking local. With outstanding events all year round, Creative 11 sure knows how to throw one hell of a party. Thank you Creative 11 and the talented restaurants who indulged us in this cheesy, delicious experience.
Mac & Cheese Fest, you look Gouda in Denver and I can’t wait for next year!