“Anyone can make mac and cheese. It’s just difficult to make it good,” says Tarik Ryant, a.k.a. Chef Reeky, owner of Cheezy Vegan and Chef Reeky’s Cafe and Juice Bar.
Mac and cheese can be dry. It can be mushy. And more often than not, it can be bland. To create a version that’s memorable can be tricky. Tack on a dairy-free requirement, and that challenge gets exponentially harder. But Philly chefs are ready for it.
All across the city, you can find vegan versions of mac and cheese, some baked with a crusty top, others so creamy it’s easy to wonder: “Where’s the milk?” Ask chefs about their recipe, and many will tell you it’s a result of months, sometimes years, of R&D.
“I probably went through seven renditions of my cheese sauce before I locked in on what it is now,” says Ryant of his recipe. “In the African American community, everyone wants to know who made the mac and cheese before you eat it. It’s kind of like, ‘If Grandma didn’t make it, I’m not eating it,’ so I wasn’t about to sell something I couldn’t get right. Honestly, I almost gave up on it.”
» READ MORE: The best vegan fried chicken sandwiches in Philly
What does a mac and cheese without ‘cheese’ even mean?
Ryant makes his sauce from a blend of five plant-based cheeses and two brands of oat milk. Made out of everything from nuts to soy to tapioca, dairy free cheese brands vary greatly on their own. But a vegan cheese sauce can also start with a base of potatoes, carrots, coconut milk, cashew cream, and beyond. Many incorporate nutritional yeast, a nutty, golden, flaky yeast (similar to that used to bake bread and brew beer) that’s popular in vegan cuisine.
“There’s no one right answer or one right cheese for making vegan mac and cheese,” says Carmella Lanni, co-owner of vegan grocer V Marks the Shop. “It comes down to understanding textures and flavors, and finding the right combination to recreate the type of mac and cheese you enjoy. If you taste it and it brings you back to your mom’s, or aunt’s, or grandma’s mac and cheese, that’s a good mac and cheese.”
Every year, V Marks the Shop hosts Philly Mac-Down, a vegan competition where home cooks and professional chefs bring their best bowl of cheesy noodles to the table. Lanni has seen all sorts of “cheese” sauce variations, including one made with fermented tofu and another from raw carrots.
“You can’t just cook up some elbow macaroni and throw in some vegan cheese,” says Lanni’s husband, Carlo. “It’ll be OK, but it’s not going to be great.”
But you can certainly get creative, as the city’s mac and cheese options attest. Whether you’re interested in trying a Buffalo “chicken” version, a sauce made from miso and carrots, or a bowl of noodles slathered with cashew sauce, here’s where to get vegan mac and cheese in Philly.
» READ MORE: The best vegan takeout and delivery in Philly
Price: $9 for 16 ounces, $10 for Buffalo Chick’n version
You can find Ryant’s five-cheese sauce at Cheezy Vegan in Woodlyn, Delaware County. But he also brings it to Philly through a partnership with Newbold’s Batter and Crumbs, and by March, you’ll find it at Chef Reeky’s Cafe and Juice Bar, in Southwest Philly. The sauce is a balancing act between flavors and textures of plant-based products, says Ryant. “Some [cheese] brands melt a little better, some are creamier, some oat milks have more flavor and others more body,” says Ryant. “My favorite cheese is a newer brand called Vevan. Their cheddar gives me the closest thing that I’ve tasted to real cheddar.” You can order the mac as is, or opt for Ryant’s favorite Buffalo version, featuring grilled Gardein “chicken” doused in Frank’s RedHot.
(Coming March 2021) Chef Reeky’s Cafe and Juice Bar: 📍6517 Elmwood Ave., 📞 215-921-9915, 🌐 chefreekyscafe.com/order, 📷 @chefreeky, 🕙 Tue.-Sun. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., 🚗 restaurant website, GrubHub, Seamless, UberEats
Price: $14 per pint
With a one-to-one ratio of pasta to sauce, this bowl of elbow noodles is among the creamier options you’ll find. The sauce is made with coconut milk and raw cashews, blended until smooth with a pinch of nutritional yeast. “t’s the only recipe I’ve never shared with anyone,” says owner Rachel Klein, adding, “except for one person in Portland who swore to secrecy.” Its biggest secret, says Klein, may be its simplicity, along with Chaokoh coconut milk, a brand chosen for its rich fat content. You can find the mac and cheese on the Pantry’s Meals at Home menu. The menu also features a rotating plant-based cheese, which you can order to double the richness. Shred it into your bowl before reheating, says Klein, or add a layer on top and bake for a crusty finish.
Price: $14 for 9-inch baking dish (feeds 2-3 people), $55 for a half-pan (feeds 12 people)
This mac gets its Velveeta-colored hue thanks to carrots blended with nut milk and a signature seasoning blend that creates a creamy, salty, slightly tangy sauce. It’s poured over al dente elbow noodles and sent into the oven, baked until the top forms a velvety, not crunchy, crust. “It’s the definition of UnSoul Food in itself,” says co-owner Bryon Dockett. “Almost every order that comes through has the mac and cheese.” Dockett and his wife spent roughly a year developing the dish. And shortly after its 2018 debut, they took second place at the Philly Mac-Down competition, along with the event’s audience-based “Philly Choice” award.
Price: $15 for 14 ounces
Is mac and cheese still comfort food if it’s got a hint of truffle? Chef Frederick Morris says “yes,” whisking it into his coconut-milk base along with garlic, nutritional yeast, salt, and coarse black pepper. The rich, nutty sauce is left to simmer for an hour, then poured over pasta shells tossed with sautéed cremini and shiitake mushrooms and kale. It all goes under the broiler to brown the top, then is finished with fresh herbs or scallions. Portion sizes are large, designed to bring comfort for two, says Morris.
📍 3426 Conrad St., 📞 215-716-7111, 🌐 terronkitchen.com, 📷 @terroneastfalls, 🕙 Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-3. p.m. and 5-9 p.m. 🚗 Caviar, DoorDash, GrubHub, Seamless, UberEats
Price: $3.47 for one-pound side, $30 for a half-pan (feeds 10-12 people), $13 as part of the special Saturday platter
This Northeast Philly spot strives for a Velveeta-like cheese with its homemade cheddar sauce made of potato, carrots, onions, nutritional yeast, and garlic powder. It’s poured over elbow noodles, and then baked with a secret sweet and smoky seasoning that imparts hints of barbecue flavor. Get it as a side, or double the indulgence by ordering it deep-fried. It also comes packaged inside vegan wonton wraps. The mac is on Little Man’s rotating Caribbean platter, too, posted to Instagram on Mondays and available for Saturday pickup only.
Price: $2.99 plus the price of any (one-pound) Mac Mart bowl
A lover of real cheese, Caitlin Downs was excited by the challenge of recreating one of her favorite “guilty pleasures”: Velveeta, in dairy-free form. “It’s honestly richer than my traditional mac and cheese sauce,” says Downs of the final version. Each batch starts with sautéed onions and garlic, stirred together with tomato paste, almond milk, and seasonings, like smoked paprika, cayenne, and ground mustard. It also gets a dollop of tamarind paste for a hint of tang, and two types of plant-based cheeses that are stirred in across 45 minutes. Once thickened, everything goes into a food processor, blended until creamy. You can order the savory sauce as a replacement in any of Mac Mart’s macaroni bowls — but you’ll need to call a half hour in advance. It’s a step to “prevent cross-contamination” with their real cheese sauce, says owner Marti Lieberman.
📍104 S. 18th St., 📞 215-444-6144, 🌐 macmartcart.com , 📷 @themacmart, 🕙 Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. (may vary), 11 a.m.-7 p.m., 🚗 Caviar, DoorDash, GrubHub, Postmates, Seamless, UberEats
Price: $6 for 10-ounce side (entree-size portion available upon request, with options to add steamed kale, chopped tomatoes, and/or avocado)
Another Philly Mac-Down “Philly Choice” award winner, Soy Cafe is bringing joy with its dairy-free, gluten-free, oil-free mac. “Since the shutdown happened, I started calling it Mac and Cheers so that it reminds people to stay positive and upbeat,” says owner Alice Leung. It’s designed to mimic Kraft macaroni and cheese, but without any processed ingredients, instead made from cashews, carrots, onions, potatoes, and spices. The blended, silky yellow sauce is heated over brown rice noodles, then topped with a double crunch of toasted garlic brown rice bread crumbs and smoky, maple coconut “bacon.”
Price: $4 for 8 ounces, $13-$15 as part of build-your-own platters, $35-$60 for catering
Allergic to the nuts and seeds, owner Sarah Scandone set out to create a cheesy sauce purely out of vegetables. Today, her signature blend includes potatoes, carrots, nutritional yeast, kelp granules, onion powder, pink Himalayan sea salt, and cayenne, all blended together with grapeseed oil. It’s a nutty, but nut-free, sauce that soaks tri-color rotini noodles, which then gets baked in the oven. You can pair it on a platter with dishes like jerk veggie steak and curry plantains or ask for it as a side.
Price: $10 for 8 ounces ($12 with mushrooms)
Bourbon and Branch slathers both its cheese fries and macaroni with a creamy sauce made from Violife shreds, almond milk, and spices like turmeric that create its golden color. For the mac, Follow Your Heart Parmesan is added for a crusty top once baked. Bread crumbs add extra crunch. There’s an option to order it with a blend of sautéed mushrooms, too.
Price: $11.75 as part of February’s bowl special; price for permanent menu is TBD
New to Algorithm’s food truck menu, this vegetal, slightly earthy take on mac and cheese features roasted carrots, miso, a little vegan mayo, and nutritional yeast. “We tried the sauce with a fake cheese, and it was OK, but we discovered we could do something really fun with miso that adds a salty umaminess,” says chef Cody Ballard. The thick cream coats pasta shells in an orange hue, currently paired alongside fried “chicken” and sautéed kale in February’s bowl of the month.