Clarkston Union Lays the Gluten-free S'mac Down

Clarkston Union at night
Photo Courtesy of Margaret Clegg
I recently received a very nice email from the gang at the Clarkston Union. If you're unfamiliar with them, they are the original restaurant in the Union Family of Joints. Clarkston Union has been in business for 20 years, started by Curt Catallo and wife Ann Stevenson. They had the vision of renovating an old baptist church and turning it into a local restaurant. It's been a huge success. They've gone on to open other restaurants, such as Union Woodshop, Vinsetta's Garage, and Fenton Fire Hall. Each building has been renovated to keep the character of the original structure and breathe new life into it. The stair well that pays tribute to the firefighters at Fenton Fire Hall is one of my favorites.

So as I was saying, their social media manager Jim reached out to me at the beginning of March. He wanted to thank me for spreading the love about Fenton Fire Hall on Awesome Mitten. He also wanted to let me know that they have finally perfected their take on a gluten-free version of their famous  Mac N' Cheese. This is no ordinary mac n' cheese. It's been featured on Food Network, Esquire, and even television shows in Canada.  And this well-known restaurant wanted to invite me to try the new "gf" mac, as they wanted my opinion. I was incredibly honored.

It was a quick half hour drive from Flint to Clarkston, and my husband and I were directed to a booth seat. (The booths are so cool - they're repurposed church pews!) We were greeted promptly by our lovely waitress Yvonne and I was given the gluten-free menu. I was amazed at how many options there were. Pasta, pizza, burgers and sausages on a bun were all available to me. Dessert too! I later learned that all of their gluten-free products are sourced locally, with buns and pizza crust coming from Rumi's Passion in Plymouth and pasta from Mama Mucci's in Canton. They source local meat and produce as well, and believe in fresh food. Ninety percent of what they serve is made in house, even their sausages.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Clegg

My husband ordered the half portion of the regular mac n' cheese while I ordered the half portion of the gluten-free mac n' cheese. We also ordered their Steak Fattoush Salad (minus the pita), their weekly pizza special (which changes every Tuesday), and my husband ordered their handmade chicken sausage. I honestly could have ordered one of everything, because it all sounded amazing.

Shortly after sitting down, we had the pleasure of being joined by chef Aaron Cozadd. Chef Cozadd is the executive and creative mind over the menus at all of the Union Joints. For someone who has so much notoriety, he was incredibly humble and gracious with his time. He politely asked if he could sit next to me in the booth, which of course I obliged. While we waited for our food, we discussed his awareness of food allergies and his philosophy about cooking.

Photo courtesy of Joe Vaughn
Chef Cozadd had been working at the Clarkston Union since he was 16 years old. It was eating the mac n' cheese at the Clarkston Union for the first time that opened his eyes to what cooking could be. This further led him to pursue a culinary degree from the famed CIA. It was while he was there, in 2004, that the school reinforced the idea that chefs needed to be prepared to accommodate food allergies and intolerances. That has shaped how he cooks and creates new dishes, crafting menus that are as allergy-free as possible. He mentioned that he wants to make every customer happy, and doesn't want anyone to feel like a second class citizen. Then again, he has first hand knowledge. Due to his peanut allergy, he personally knows the necessity to prevent all cross-contact, not swapping serving utensils, knives or cutting boards without thoroughly cleaning them. He knows what it feels to be left out of family food gatherings, and he never wants that to happen at one of his establishments.

During our conversation, our mac n' cheese came to the table. The gluten-free version arrived piping hot, in its dedicated red ceramic dish. These dishes are never used for anything other than gluten-free mac n' cheese. Chef Cozadd added that it's cooked on the top shelf of the oven, preventing crumbs from other dishes from inadvertently falling on it. Except for the pasta, thickening agents and bread crumbs, the gluten-free mac and cheese is the same as the original.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Clegg

So the moment of truth. My husband tried his regular mac, then he tried a bit of mine. A look of pleased surprise crossed his face. "It tastes the same," he stated. (He was even more amazed with our leftovers, and that it still tasted the same, and the noodles didn't disintegrate.) If I hadn't ordered other items, I would have inhaled the whole dish right there.

While we waited for our other dishes, we discussed the chef's culinary adventures on the horizon. They have plans to open another Clarkston location, called Honcho, that will feature Latin street food, roasted coffee and handmade corn tortillas. They're investing in other cities, purchasing a building in Oak Park and partnering in the Brewster Wheeler Rec. Center renovation in Detroit. So just like their other Union Joints restaurants, these old and iconic buildings will be renovated, repurposed, and made into something future generations can cherish. Why? Because the Union Joints chain is a business wanting to effect change in a very real, positive way.

The rest of our meal arrived to our table. We thanked Chef Cozadd for spending so much time with us on a Friday night, and shook his hand as he left.We started eating our meal and were blown away by everything. The Steak Fattoush salad was amazing, with perfectly marinated, tender meat.(We took the leftovers home, and it was still so tender I was able to slice it with a butter knife.) The vegetarian pizza was amazing. It was topped with a homemade pesto sauce and loaded with cremini mushrooms, roasted red peppers and red onions, roasted cherry tomatoes and basil, all topped with fresh mozzarella. My husband enjoyed his sausage so much he was almost moved to tears. He has dealt with a pork allergy most of his adult life, and this sausage immediately took him back to the flavors he missed from his childhood. To say that Clarkson Union has won us over as patrons is an understatement.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Clegg

As we closed our evening, we took some time to talk to our waitress, Yvonne. I asked about her background with the business and her reasons for working there. She said she's been there over 9 years, practically half the time the restaurant has been in existence. I asked her what kept here there for so many years. "We're family." She stated that the staff and owners all celebrate life together, going to each other's birthday parties, weddings, and funerals.

I asked her if she had an stories of customers that left a lasting impression up on her. She immediately told us the story of a particular elderly woman. This older woman came into the restaurant on a busy day, wanting to sit in one of the very large booths, all by herself. They thought it odd, but obliged. After her order came, the elderly woman thanked the wait staff, explaining that it was the first time she had left her house since her elderly husband recently passed. The couple had been married for 50 years, ate there frequently, and she just needed to sit in "their booth." If I remember correctly they didn't let her pay for her meal.

We thanked Yvonne for her wonderful service and left there full from our meal and better for having been there. We noticed that the tally board, as Clarkston Union moves closer to serving it's millionth helping of macaroni and cheese, went up considerably while we were there. I wouldn't be surprised if they reached that mark before the end of March. Then they can work towards their two millionth!

Photo courtesy of Margaret Clegg
Clarkston Union Bar & Kitchen
54 S Main St
Clarkston MI 48436
(248) 620 - 6100
Open Monday thru Wednesday 11 am - 12 am,
Thursday & Friday 11 am - 2 am      
Saturday 11am-12am /
Sunday 9 am - 9 pm

Follow Clarkston Union on Facebook,  Twitter &  Instagram 

Have you been to the Clarkston Union? What's your favorite dish there? Which of their locations is your favorite place to get a meal? 

** Although I was given a free meal, all of my opinions are my own.**