We sample three signature dishes so you don't have to
From left: I Heart Mac & Cheese’s cheesy goodness; Wow Bao’s steamed buns and soup; the Classic Carol from Chicken Salad Chick.
What’s better than a noodle and wedge of cheese hugging? The two ingredients combined in a bowl and served hot with crispy breadcrumbs, that’s what. While the I Heart Mac & Cheese logo is adorable, it’s the food I was most interested in when I finally found the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, location, tucked into the back corner of a slice of real estate within the Southport Shopping Center. While the restaurant was empty save for a single employee, it was 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and so I received a personal tour through the menu—much appreciated given the overly complicated ordering process. If you go the build-your-own route, there’s a dizzying array of combinations, including six bases and dozens of toppings. Sure, customization is all the rage right now but I shouldn’t have to do all the work. There are some composed dishes, but I wanted the brand’s signature mac and cheese, which wasn’t even listed on the menu. The helpful employee earned his tip, and minutes later I indulged in a perfect combo of al dente pasta and creamy cheese sauce, including some Muenster, white cheddar and parmesan. All for $8.95.
The upshot: While I Heart Mac & Cheese makes you work for it a bit, the cheesy goodness of its signature dish is worth the effort. — LM
The Wow Bao mascot is the cutest little guy ever, looking like a steamed bun or bao for which the chain is named and strutting around in red high-top sneakers on the video screen that fills an entire wall. When your order is ready, the man (or woman) behind the curtain pops your food in one of a dozen transparent doors, the digital display puts your name on it and a receipt swooshes to your inbox with no pesky human interactions to gum up the works—except for the humans needed when someone doesn’t know how to use the ordering tablets or someone searches in vain for chopsticks or napkins. One 30-something customer in a Chicago store threw his hands in the air and peered in back. “It’s a prison back there, or maybe this is the prison,” he said loudly, indicating the cramped dining area versus where the employees purportedly are. A four-pack of buns for $8.29 were a bit dry and the four types of savory fillings were all tasty but all tasted the same.
The upshot: It’s fun to order from a souped-up vending machine, as Wow Bao styles itself, and the mascot is super-cute, but the buns themselves are merely meh. The soup, on the other hand—wow. — BE
I’m a Midwesterner through and through, so chicken salad has a special place in my heart. But when I first heard of Chicken Salad Chick, even I thought it was a bit silly—just chicken salad? But when I tried it in person, I realized the brand is more Panera-esque than the sad, damp chicken salad croissant from the grocery grab-and-go aisle. Everything in the restaurant screamed “friendly aunt,” which bodes well for the typical Midwestern palate. I, however, was hoping for something with a bit of flavor. To complement the signature Classic Carol chicken salad (on a croissant of course), I added some spicy pimento cheese in hopes of a culinary excursion beyond the Iowa border. The chicken salad was good, really good. It struck the balance of creamy, flavorful and slightly indulgent without being goopy or heavy—as near to perfection without being made by my mom. And beyond the signature salad, that pimento cheese was a solid, southern kick in the tongue. My meal was a constant shift from oh-so-spicy to cooling comfort—not what I expected, but gleefully appreciated. If I hadn’t been about to board a plane, I would have doubled up with a to-go order.
The upshot: The classic chicken salad was great, but the sides elevate it even more. — NU