Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, so it's at home on fast-food menus, which we turn to for quick comfort. This seemingly simple side can, however, be complicated. Sure, it can be whipped up from a box in minutes, but real homestyle mac and cheese takes technique and, sadly, some fast-food spots just aren't up to the challenge.
The best mac and cheese is based on a French technique of making a roux, which is cooking flour in butter and then adding milk and finally cheese to make a Mornay sauce. This ensures that the cheese does not become gloppy and that the end result is creamy and smooth. While the French technique is the best, there are a few other ways to get a velvety result, and processed cheese, like Velveeta, which has emulsifiers built into it, is one. But if you've tasted Velveeta and aged cheddar side by side, you know which one is better. So the tastiest way to make mac and cheese is slow cooking it with the best ingredients.
Again, most fast-food restaurants do not have the time or resources to do this. Panera, for example, has the cooking done off-premises and then the dish delivered in a bag to be warmed up. That's perfectly fine too, because mac and cheese can get better as it melds together. The downfall, of course, is that the pasta can become too soggy and the sauce can break. So others will add cheese sauce to the cooked pasta and some use that processed cheese to keep it smooth and creamy. The best ones will re-bake the dish with a layer of cheese on top, even if it isn't made at the restaurant.
However it's done, we set out to try the best fast-food versions around. We based our taste test on the look and overall taste of mac and cheese from Chick-fil-A, KFC, Panera, and Popeyes. Find out which one blew us away with look and taste.
KFC's Mac & Cheese
What's better than mac and cheese with a fried chicken dinner? KFC's mac & cheese had all the right elements—after all, the chain has been selling mac and cheese alongside its famous buckets of chicken for a long time. It even has a popular Mac & Cheese Bowl that combines the pasta dish with chicken nuggets and cheese.
The look: Sadly the old adage that looks can be deceiving applies to this creamy-looking mac and cheese. True, it did have an odd chunky element to it, but otherwise it has nice small, macaroni noodles in a thick sauce. Compared to the others, the color was a mild golden color.
The taste: This mac and cheese had a very odd texture and it was goopy instead of creamy. The pasta was very soft to the point of falling apart. Plus, none of the cheese flavors came through and it was very bland. We got a large size assuming it would be nice to have leftovers. It was not. Was it the use of pasteurized cheddar cheese product instead of real cheese that dropped this one to the bottom? Maybe. This is a skip!
Panera's Mac & Cheese
Panera was once called out for warming up its pre-made mac and cheese at the restaurant, instead of making it from scratch. But this really shouldn't hurt the final product too much as long as it is slowly reheated, as Panera does in a water bath.
The look: Panera uses big, fancy, ridged macaroni noodles for its mac and cheese. It looked very pale, but it's made with real aged white cheddar, which would explain the color. It also looked oddly uniform and the cheese was obviously not very thick as it showed the small ridges in the noodles.
The taste: This dish was not bad, but not like mac and cheese. It tastes very creamy but without any of the sharpness of a good cheesy mac and cheese. The noodles were borderline too al dente. Panera's lists real cheddar cheese as an ingredient here, but sadly none of the sharpness came through, and the mac and cheese was very one note—more like pasta with Alfredo sauce. The wow factor was definitely missing.
Panera's Broccoli Cheddar Mac & Cheese
We had to try Panera's Broccoli Cheddar Mac and Cheese when we heard it uses the same base as the chain's famous soup.
The look: This looked more golden than the regular mac & cheese, and adding vegetables was a nice touch. But it was fairly watery.
The taste: Panera may call this dish mac and cheese, but it's stretching it. Sure there's macaroni and there is cheese, but this is really the chain's Broccoli Cheddar Soup poured over pasta. It had the cheddar flavor that the classic mac and cheese was missing but it was far soupier. If you want real mac and cheese, you won't be satisfied with this version.
Chick-fil-A's Mac & Cheese
Chick-fil-A bakes its mac and cheese in-house with a layer of cheese on top, but the base likely isn't made at the restaurants. It also uses a three-cheese blend of parmesan, cheddar, and romano.
The look: The Chick-fil-A mac and cheese looked very thick, with the cheese sauce covering up the noodles. As we stirred we saw browned bits of carmelized cheese that we mistook for bacon at first. Apparently, the cheese is baked on top in big trays and then the mac and cheese is scooped into the serving cups. It would have been nice to have the browned cheese on top like at Popeyes.
The taste: Chick-fil-A's mac and cheese was as creamy as Panera's but with an added cheesy flavor that makes you dive back in for another bite. The combination of parmesan, cheddar, and romano cheese kept this mac and cheese from being too uniform in flavor. While lighter than the Popeyes' mac and cheese, the Chick-fil-A version was very well-made and perfectly emulsified. The noodles were a bit too soft, but they gave just enough bite.
Honestly, there wasn't much wrong with this mac and cheese and it would have won if Popyes didn't show up to ruin the party. Get this dish anytime you need something creamy and cheesy in your life—unless you're near a Popeyes.
Popeyes has a knack for disrupting the fast-food industry as it did with its famed chicken sandwiches in 2019. In 2021 it quietly changed its mac and cheese to a new homestyle version that is made with butter, loaded with cheddar cheese, and baked with an extra topping of cheddar.
The look: This tiny little cup of mac and cheese looks delicious. It's almost like the crème brûlée of mac and cheese with its crispy topping of browned cheddar. The cheese sauce looks a little broken, which can happen with mac and cheese, but not so much that it would make a difference in taste.
The taste: Popeyes has done it again. If the Mac and Cheese Wars were to begin tomorrow at fast-food restaurants, Popeyes would just have to serve this little cup of wonder and drop the mic. The sharp cheese permeates the dish, the noodles are not too soft, and the cheddar on top has a caramelized, nutty flavor.
Was the dish a bit too greasy? Yes. Did it make me want to stop eating it? No. We threw around adjectives like 'melt in your mouth' and 'full-bodied'—words that you usually don't associate with fast food. If you love mac and cheese that doesn't come out of a box, don't skip this gem from Popeyes.