BRADENTON BEACH -- Some applauded as "gutsy" the Blue Marlin Restaurant's unorthodox move Sunday to add chunks of stone crab and smoked Gouda cheese to its mac & cheese entry in a cook-off Sunday.
Others thought the Bridge Tender Inn couldn't miss knocking out the Blue Marlin by blending sour cream, freshly sliced cheddar cheese, bacon and fried chicken into its mac & cheese creation.
When the final votes came in stone crab beat bacon -- but not by much.
By 35-27, reigning mac & cheese champion, Blue Marlin Restaurant of Bradenton Beach, and its "Stoney Mac," beat the Bridge Tender Inn's "Southern Fried Chicken and Bacon Mac" to claim for the second straight year the "2016 Bridge Street Merchant's Mac & Cheese Cook-Off Challenge" title.
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"Our philosophy is to let the flavors do the talking," said Blue Marlin Head Chef Joshua Drawdy.
To get that flavor to speak up, Drawdy added cheddar cheese, truffle oil, baked bread crumbs, scallions and sriracha, the chef said.
"And regular old elbow mac cooked to perfection," Drawdy added with a grin.
The daring Nikki Campbell, a message therapist at Sea-renity Beach Spa & Eco Boutique of Bradenton Beach, decided to go up against the Bradenton Beach restaurants with her own special mac & cheese ingredients. She took third.
Campbell sautéed onions in bacon grease for her "Sea-renity Mac & Cheese." No word if you can get an aroma of the recipe while getting a Sea-renity massage.
Walter Loos of Adventure Away AMI Adventure Center did not place with his "Canadian Mac & Cheese." But when the competition kicked off, Loos felt his entry, which also had bacon, would win.
"I think someone copied us," Loos said with a big grin.
Slim's Place, known for cheese steaks and beers at 9701 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, rounded out the mac & cheese field.
The contest was at The Bridge Street Market, a popular and colorful addition to the Bradenton Beach scene with its jewelry, photography, art, bakery and produce vendors, just to name a few.
The market is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday on a lot near the western tip of Bridge Street.
The market hosts three food challenges a year for charity, including Sunday's mac & cheese, said Cindy Johnson, Bridge Street Market Manager.
The next up is a bisque or crab chowder cook-off on Feb. 21 to benefit Manatee County's Moonracer No Kill Animal Rescue, Johnson said.
The $257 raised during Sunday's mac & cheese cook-off will all go to the not-for profit, Feeding Empty Little Tummies, also known as F.E.L.T., Johnson said.
"Feeding Empty provides food for homeless children on the weekends through a backpack program that is currently in 20 Manatee schools," Johnson said.
Slim's Place and Adventure Away on Anna Maria Island rounded out the mac & cheese competitive field.
The event had been rescheduled from Jan. 17 due to inclement weather.
Roughly 60 voters each paid $5 on a sunny and warm day to sample the five mac & cheese creations and cast their votes, Johnson said.
Fans of 'Stoney Mac'
The Blue Marlin at 212 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach has "Stoney Mac" on its menu, Johnson said.
"This is the winner, Blue Marlin," Jay Mandell of Clinton, Conn., predicted early in the two-hour competition when he first tasted Stoney Mac. "Oh yeah. It's definitely the combination of the crab and smoked gouda."
Mandell came to the competition with two other mac & cheese lovers, his wife, Geri, and friend, Roz Gold, from Glouchester, Mass.
Margaret Seggebruch, visiting Anna Maria Island from Urbana, Ill., thought the Bridge Tender's Southern Fried Chicken mac & cheese was the best because it was more traditional.
"It was rich and creamy with the bacon and sour cream," Seggebruch said. "It's old-fashioned comfort food and we loved it."
Margaret's husband, Larry Seggebruch, said more mac & cheese is consumed in Urbana than anywhere else in the United States, a fact the Bradenton Herald has not been able to confirm. But, perhaps, what the Seggebruchs say about mac & cheese is not to be taken lightly.
"We eat a lot of mac and cheese because we are close to Wisconsin, which, of course, is the cheese capital of the world," Larry Seggebruch said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.