Your Childhood Dream Come True: Elbows Mac 'N' Cheese (+ Giveaway!)

[Giveaway is now over - thanks for participating!] When you think back to your childhood, what are some of the most iconic dishes that come to mind? Is Kraft's Blue Box mac-n-cheese one of them? I remember the radioactively orange powder that got dumped into saucepans when we would beg not to eat Asian food on the weekends (on the rare, rare occasion my mother would allow it) and how it wouldn't dissolve completely sometimes, leaving a gritty texture with each forkful. As I grew up, mac-n-cheese did too to the school cafeteria version that was with softer pasta to the casual restaurant or buffet version that was slightly watery but felt more wholesome. Then I entered a world that understood the toasty, baked crust of a mac-n-cheese that contained sumptuous, umami-laden ingredients and showcased strings of oozy, melting cheese. No going back save for nostalgia's sake!

So what to do now when you just want that goodness without having to also order an entree (since it's usually a side order)? Enter Elbows Mac 'n' Cheese. The success of their Cerritos location led to their second spot in downtown Brea, guaranteed to garner attention. Created to "blend classic American home cooking with gourmet international inspiration," the restaurant is focused on more mac-n-cheese variations than you could imagine (though they do serve salads and sandwiches too). It reminded me of the mac-n-cheese spot I visited in St. Louis but with a simpler feel and more homestyle inspirations. We were invited in one afternoon to indulge a little and boy, did we!

The eatery is right on the main street of downtown Brea, next to the towering Bruxie and across from Bruno's. Once you step inside, the obsession with orange begins and is highly reminiscent of the radioactive orange I mentioned earlier that came from the iconic Kraft blue box version of the comfort food. I liked the feel of the brick walls and tall windows, giving a sense of openness to the spot that had just a handful of tables. The menu seemed intimidating with the vast amount of options so we snagged the paper menus at the counter to feel less overwhelmed. Luckily, the ordering process is easy and you can even log in for points through their rewards app!

Salads and sandwiches are part of the menu but the main draw is the mac-n-cheese section which allows you to order from their internationally-inspired concoctions or build your own by selecting a size, noodle type, two cheeses, veggies at $.50/$.75 each depending on size, proteins for $1.50/$2.00 each depending on size, and spices. You can also go for one of their combination deals which include a half macaroni dish or sandwich with a half salad, soup, or fries.

The mac-n-cheese options highly tempted us but seeing as all of the sandwiches were cheese melts of some sort, an order for one of those was necessary. We picked the Philly Cheesesteak Melt ($6.95 - steak, onions and peppers with Provolone and American cheese) which unfortunately ended up being a miss for our expectations. The abundance of ingredients other than the cheese made it difficult for the melty dairy to come through, and we were left with pieces falling out with each bite as they weren't bound by the cheese. The steak also came out a tad dry so we just took a few bites and boxed this one up.

There are several sides to choose from to complement your mac-n-cheese meal, one of the most popular being their ChipStix ($4.95) which is a large potato spiraled onto a stick. We wanted to give their Vanilla Sweet Potato Fries ($4.95 - vanilla sugar-coated sweet potato fries) and Pretzel Bites & Fondue ($5.50 - house pretzels with a four-cheese fondue) a shot and were glad to have done so. The sweet potato fries were one of the best we've ever had; Duc actually was bold enough to call it the actual best he's ever had! Perfectly crisp with enough softness inside to show off the smooth texture of sweet potato, each fry was augmented by a light dusting of vanilla sugar and needed no dipping sauce. They were just right they way they were. The pretzel bites were too much like house rolls when we got them and came with an excess of salt (had to brush those off) but the fondue was much welcomed in its creamy, gooeyness. Perhaps the chili would have been dusted on top more evenly for the spicy kick with each dip but other than that, we enjoyed the fondue portion of this side.

When it comes to the mac-n-cheese options, I highly recommend that you go for the Regular sizes (you can get Large) and share among friends unless you really are a cheese and pasta fiend. To make yourself feel less guilty about your indulging, there are options to switch out for multi-grain pasta for $1 more and even gluten-free pasta for $2 more. Each dish comes out in its own ceramic skillet, branded at the handle with Elbows logo, served on a metal pan. They are certainly large but do not worry - they have foil to-go containers available for you to re-bake the crunch back onto your dish.

I asked for a shot at their most popular selection which ended up being my favorite for that day - their When Pigs Fly ($8.65/$10.65 - Swiss and Gruyere cheeses with applewood smoked bacon). It sounds so simple right? Cheese and bacon, what could go wrong? I liked the cheeses chosen for this dish because the bacon was already so salty that having saltier cheese would have turned this into a failure. The crust cracked when I pushed it with my fork, a satisfying sound before the tines plunged into a vat of cheese that came out in strings with a lift. The macaroni elbows were ridged, an important component of all of their dishes because the texture helps the cheese adhere to the pasta. I particularly liked this one because it hit on salty from the bacon, sweet from the applewood, smoky from the smoked bacon, and overall savory from the cheeses. No wonder it's the most popular here.

To hop on over to the fancier side, we had to try out their So Shellfish ($12.95/$15.95 - lobster and asparagus in Asiago and Parmesan). This turned out to be Duc's favorite because the lobster was so abundant and in recognizable chunks. The asparagus seemed to only be apparent when singled out though because the cheeses overwhelmed it. This was certainly a lighter, whiter mac-n-cheese with the Asiago and Parmesan but it made sense with the subtle taste of seafood. I personally would have liked to have had more lobster flavor dispersed throughout the dish though instead of in chunks; it was only noted as a lobster mac-n-cheese when a part was in the forkful but otherwise, it didn't carry over the taste throughout. I did think that the choice in saltier cheeses made sense though and kept this version from being too bland.

On the complete other side of the lobster mac-n-cheese was the flavor explosion in Elbows' Cajun Sensation ($8.65/$10.65 - Cheddar, andouille sausage, green and red peppers, onions, celery, garlic, and Cajun seasonings), a spicy kick to your face with more personality than you might be able to handle. Cajun food is so bombastic with all of its spices and bright colors already that we knew we were going to be in for a treat with this one. I really liked the extra crunch on top from not just the crust but from how Cheddar tends to crisp up when baked so hot. The freshly chopped green onions also gave some texture to it. Had I not been such a spicy-food wimp, I would have pinned this one as my favorite of the three we tasted. There is plenty of sausage and bell pepper to go around, and the Cheddar melted beautifully. The Cajun seasonings were used in a balanced way and did not overtake the ingredients themselves. I really recommend this one for the Cajun food lovers who drop by the restaurant. If you want other flavor bombs, there were also options like their Jalapeno Business, Macsala (Indian spices), Fun Guy (mushroom), and even Do You Want a Pizza Me. By the way, love the clever names!

We felt so heavy with the cheese but could not say no to dessert which they do with Beignets ($5.95 - coated with powdered sugar). These came with some melted milk chocolate which came off quite sugary so we avoided it after the first dip or two. They were not as fluffy as hoped for beignets so I'd say to just stick with the mac-n-cheese. After all, cheese can be a dessert right?

If you're interested in checking Elbows out and getting your comfort food fix on, they are located at 215 W. Birch Street in Brea and also at 11405 South Street in Cerritos (we visited Brea). It's one of those places you have to try at least once with a large group of friends, just so you can get a whiff of all the other choices there. To be honest though, you'll probably still come back after that...again and again. Who wouldn't? It's a place that just makes mac-n-cheese!

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.

Elbows Mac n' Cheese on Urbanspoon

Elbows has so GRACIOUSLY offered two of the readers of Much Ado About Fooding the chance to try them out with a friend. I have two (2) $20 gift cards to give away to some lucky folks. Enter in the widget below and share with your friends. After all, if they win, they'll need some company to bring with them too! Even if you don't win, drop in for a cheesy throwback.

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The giveaway will run until 10/22/14 at 11:59pm PST. Winners will be contacted upon winning and have 48 hours to respond before runner-up winners are drawn.