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How I Heart Mac & Cheese changed my life

By Tammy Smith

Confession: I am not known as a macaroni and cheese lover. It’s probably because my conception of the dish is based on either the blue-box grocery store product or the version of my youth: pasta boiled for far too long and glued together in a gelatinous mass with only the grated, red-rind cheese on top to redeem it. 

So I put on my game face and texted a friend, who loves her some mac and cheese, to accompany me to I Heart Mac & Cheese, which opened Feb. 23 on Pass Road in Gulfport. I had checked out the menu beforehand and saw I had several non-pasta options, including one with strictly chicken, veggies and sauce. 

We were greeted warmly at the order counter. I ordered the Skinny, Sweet & Spicy ($9.95), the aforementioned dish. It comes with grilled chicken, broccoli and cauliflower base, sesame ginger sauce, mango habanero sauce, mushrooms, carrots, corn and scallions. I also got the three-piece pepperoni Signature Mac Bites ($3.10), which come with your choice of dipping sauce. I went with marinara.

By the way, if a pasta base isn’t your thing, you can choose quinoa, cauliflower, broccoli or tater tots instead for all their bowls. There’s also a gluten-free pasta option for $1.50 more. Vegans will find protein and cheese alternatives. 

The setup is much like you’d find at a familiar submarine sandwich restaurant. You watch your food being prepared and indicate what you want in your dish. Your order starts out in an aluminum pan, and ingredients are added. You can add, subtract or substitute as you wish. I got mine exactly as it’s listed in the menu and watched the pan go into the oven. When the order is ready, it’s transferred into an adorable heart-shaped plastic bowl, whether you get takeout or dine on site.

Several tables were available inside, in addition to some tempting outside patio options. However, since it was a windy day, inside dining won. When I returned to the table after getting my fountain drink, I saw both of our orders had arrived, and I was very surprised to see my friend had gotten a sandwich and tomato soup dipper instead of mac and cheese. 

“I just felt like having a sandwich tonight,” she said. Specifically, she chose to build her own grilled cheese. Hers included white cheddar, mozzarella and chicken. Build Your Own Grilled Cheese ($8.95) lets you select your bread, cheese, protein and veggies.

Both of our meals were very good. My bowl, even without a pasta base, was satisfying. The veggies were nicely steamed, and the sauce was just right — not too much, not too little. The fried mac bites were actually two bites each for me, and the marinara sauce was a nice chunky pairing. 

My friend enjoyed her sandwich, and the small cup of soup was just right for dipping. 

But something stirred deep within me. I needed to come face to face with my issue. I will return, I said, and give I Heart Mac & Cheese the opportunity to sell me on actual mac and cheese. About a week later, after a demanding day, I placed a to-go order for the Short Rib Philly ($9.95): macaroni, short rib meat, red onion, mushrooms and Muenster cheese.

Once I got home, I decided this called for al fresco dining. I loaded my tray with the pasta dish and added a glass of pinot grigio. 

One bite, and I thought, “This is life changing!” All memories of orange noodle goo dissipated. Had any of my neighbors been standing outside, I would have insisted they have a bite. Meaty, tangy, cheesy, warm noodley goodness — I almost purred. 

Apparently my reaction isn’t that unusual. General Manager Kristin Schraeder told me it’s one of the most popular dishes, along with Chicken Parm and Vegan Delight. As for the sandwiches, the most popular is Best of Both Worlds ($11.95), which slams mac and cheese, short rib, barbecue sauce, white cheddar and cheddar into sourdough bread. 

If you peruse the menu, your eye will light on Lobster Mac & Cheese, which combines Maine lobster, Muenster, lobster cream, white truffle oil and scallions for $19.95. 

“Has that been popular?” I asked. 

“Oh, yes!” she said. “People will come in and say, ‘It’s been a long, hard week, and I want to feel special.’ And they order that.” 

I may or may not have returned a few nights later and ordered the Lobster Mac & Cheese to go. It might or might not have gone delightfully well with a glass of Prosecco.

I Heart Mac & Cheese
2093 E. Pass Road, Suite C, Gulfport
(228) 437-3010
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday
Dine indoors or outdoors.

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