I GUESS IT WAS about five years ago that I lived on North Mississippi and first heard the grumblings (from people who'd lived there longer than me) about having to dodge strollers every time they stepped outside the Fresh Pot. Carpetbagger that I was, I made no claim on the neighborhood and had no right to complain. Still, my grumpier neighbors had a point. Either the cool parents had arrived or the cool kids had started breeding.
So it makes sense—now that all those babies have developed teeth and the ability to whine and cry and manipulate their parents—that the neighborhood is ripe for a new family-friendly restaurant. Mac!, from the menu concept down to the vintage-lunchbox design scheme, appeals to children and placates their parents (nostalgia + booze = $$$).
I don't mean to say that mac 'n' cheese should be relegated to the kids' menu; I order it often, and it probably gets more Le Creuset play in my kitchen than any other dish. But Mac!'s proximity to that children's boutique that sells, like, tiny fedoras and organic-cotton GG Allin onesies is, at least, a happy accident.
The list of available mac 'n' cheese dishes is fairly expansive, far broader than Montage or even Herb's Mac & Cheese cart. You can get anything from a simple cheese and breadcrumb ($6.50) to pulled pork ($9.50) to truffle oil with peas, mushrooms, and shaved prosciutto ($10.50). There's a good variety of options for vegetarians and meat eaters alike, and for $2 more, they'll even cater to those who can't handle the gluten (vegans, as you might have guessed, are shit out of luck).
But for all the innovation and imagination—and they've got that in spades—Mac!'s mac 'n' cheese leaves something to be desired. The cheese, regardless of what it contained, has been unquestionably too thin and liquidy. My other complaints—namely that the sauce is too rich for me to get anywhere close to finishing their, admittedly huge, portions—can surely be chalked up to a matter of taste, but the texture is sub par and, depending on what other ingredients they're working with, uneven.
My first time in, I ordered the caprese mac 'n' cheese ($7.50), which adds mozzarella, basil, and tomato to the traditional American and cheddar base. The mozzarella had a soggy texture and you couldn't help but occasionally get a mouthful of nothing but a spectrum of melted cheese. (I did, however, enjoy the roasted tomatoes!)
Next I tried the spicy chicken ($9), which was decidedly un-spicy (in fairness, you can request that any of your macs be made spicier). This was only amplified by the fact that it was served—buffalo-wing style—with celery and blue cheese dressing as if my mouth would need such relief. The chicken was bland, and didn't do much to distract from that same soupy cheese sauce.
There's a hearty list of sandwiches available as well—grilled caprese, pulled pork, a BLT—but if the Philly cheese steak ($8.50 with fries, chips, or macaroni salad) is any indication, expect competence, not anything that blows your mind. The Philly is served on a soft hoagie roll with thin-cut ribeye, cheese, and sautéed onions and peppers. The steak was actually a good quality—tender, and not overly chewy—but the flavor was fairly bland. I can't imagine seeking the place out specifically for sandwiches when there are so many good options in town at the same price.
I guess fried mac 'n' cheese balls with jalapeño and bacon ($4.50 for a basket of four) should fall under the category of guilty pleasures, but they were a pleasure all the same... put these on the menu at Claudia's or George's, and not a basketball game would go by where I wasn't tempted. The crispy breading on the outside gives way to the soft, warm macaroni underneath. Will they give me a heart attack? Maybe. But with that side of marinara, I guess I'm willing to take the risk.
Also in the plus column: Mac! does have a full bar, a pretty good Bloody Mary, and a decent selection of beers. Can't hurt...
If Mac! is catering to the young families of the neighborhood, trying to take a piece of Laughing Planet's territory, they'll do just fine—it's affordable, the portions are large, and it's conveniently located. But if they want to be a destination, drawing mac 'n' cheese aficionados from other corners of the city, they've got some growing up to do.