The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.
The beginning of Spring 2020 also marks the one-semester anniversary of several on-campus dining establishments, like the well-loved Halal Shack and the often-disregarded Student Choice, which rotates its offerings out twice per semester.
I have been a fan of Student Choice since it began serving what was only described as “African” food last semester. While the food almost certainly wasn’t authentic, it tasted good, the portions were some of the most filling on campus and it got me to eat more greens than I usually do. When the line at Halal Shack grew way too long, I knew I could breeze through the line at Student Choice in seconds.
But all good things must come to an end. This semester, my beloved chicken with jollof rice and collard greens were replaced with something a little more flashy — a macaroni and cheese bar.
I know — it sounds exciting! After all, mac and cheese is nearly every college students’ favorite comfort food. Also, to its credit, it seems to be aimed at vegetarian and vegan students, as meat products like kielbasa are not included in the price of a meal swipe, while tofu and vegan chili are.
However, even though I wish I could endorse this as the new best place to eat on campus, it’s actually only alright. The pasta itself was definitely a letdown; it was archetypical cafeteria mac, with gritty, solidified cheese clinging to soft-bordering-on-mushy noodles. It was also served room temperature.
Speaking as someone who likes a little bit of bite to her pasta, this macaroni seemed horribly overcooked. And while I’m not usually all that particular about the cheese sauce, I prefer it to be a sauce — that is, a thick liquid that coats the outside of the pasta — rather than bland, dried-up cheese bits.
Still, most of us are used to this sort of mac and cheese from eating dishes like it in the dining hall and back in our high school lunchrooms. The toppings bar could have easily taken this classic dish from mediocre to tasty, but the choices available leave much to be desired. The toppings that come with a meal swipe are mostly vegetables — such as broccoli and mushrooms — that would be better suited to a salad bar. Perhaps these vegetables wouldn’t seem nearly as out of place if they were being served alongside a more palatable pasta, but next to that sad-looking tray of macaroni, they looked pretty unappetizing.
I went with what looked like the safest combination: chives, sour cream and jalapeños. This trio was actually pretty pleasant; the jalapeños and chives brought a fresh brightness to the dull mac and cheese, and the smooth texture of the sour cream cohered the pasta together into a goopy consistency that was reminiscent of a saucier (which is to say better) mac and cheese.
But while I was happy to have concocted a creation that was greater than the sum of its base components, I was also disappointed. The joy of a mac and cheese bar — like a sandwich bar, or a salad bar — is starting with a tried-and-true base, which gives you the freedom to experiment recklessly with wacky combos. The joy of a mac and cheese bar is knowing that, if you have buyer’s remorse, you can pick out the bacon bits and cherry tomatoes and just eat a bowl of mac and cheese.
In that way, this mac and cheese bar is no mac and cheese bar at all.