Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mac & Cheeza: Fails to Pleeza

By Suzy Gruyere and Hilary Havarti

For months, we’ve been waiting eagerly for Mac & Cheeza to open in downtown Los Angeles. We are sad to report that the anticipation was more thrilling than the dining experience.

There is one thing we can gush about, without reservation: Is this not the cutest logo? We are officially jealous.

Mac & Cheeza is more of a takeout place than a true restaurant because there are no tables and chairs, only two padded benches pushed against the macaroni-decorated walls. Fortunately mac and cheese doesn’t require two-fisted utensil wielding.

If you are clever, and since you’re One Of Us we’ll assume that you are, you’ve already reckoned that Mac & Cheeza specializes in macaroni and cheese. It’s nearly all they serve, apart from retro soda pop and tempting squares of red velvet cake. But they offer their custom built macaroni and cheese in a blinding array of configurations; it’s sort of like a savory version of Pinkberry in that regard. With eight possible veggie additions and eight different meaty mix-ins to choose from, and two options for topping, well…you extra-clever ones can do the math, but it’s a lot of permutations.

At the counter, you select what size mac you’d like. Portions range from the $5 “Baby Mac” to the $15 “Daddy Mac,” with a $25 “Mac Daddy” party tray available too. We both opted for Baby.

Next you choose between regular or rice-based pasta, which is placed into your aluminum baking pan. Then it’s time for any extras, which range from the usual (bacon, ham, spinach, peas) to the unusual (chorizo, collard greens).

Each extra costs $1 no matter which size mac you order. This makes no sense because they’re obviously going to have to put more of the extra ingredient on the larger sized macs, simply because there is a lot more surface area to pile it onto. A tragic little flaw in the ol’ business plan, folks. But I guess if you’re charging the big spenders a base price of $15 for $1 worth of cooked pasta, you can afford to treat the add-ins as loss-leaders.

After the extras have been heaped atop the noodles, your choice of sauce is ladled on. There’s a real-cheese sauce and a soy-cheese sauce. We both went for the real-cheese sauce, which tastes a lot more like garlic than any particular cheese. In fact, the sauce struck us as more of an Alfredo-type concoction (garlic, Parmesan and did we mention garlic?) than a legitimate mac-style sauce. The good news: The leftovers don’t curdle or separate, they reheat really well. The bad news: Garlic is pretty much all you can taste.

Garlic, garlic, GARLIC.

Mac & Cheeza peeps, if you’re listening, this little wrinkle in the recipe can be fixed. Just remove 80% of the garlic from that sauce and throw in some Cheddar or cream cheese, something to give it a tangy kick.

So anyway. After your mac has been doused with sauce, it is capped with a sprinkle of either a shredded cheese blend or “toasted spicy walnuts.” The latter is a bit of an odd duck; it isn’t spicy at all, and the walnuts (a common ingredient in pesto) merely serve to reinforce the Italian-ness of the sauce. In fact, we’re surprised they don’t offer a pesto cheese sauce. At least in that, all the garlic would make sense.

Once your mac has been constructed it is passed through a conveyor-belt oven that browns the shredded cheese topping to a perfect, mottled and extremely tempting crust. That’s a lovely sight to behold, is it not?

The over-toasted walnut topping = not so pretty:

But how did everything taste?

Hilary’s classic combination of cheese sauce, regular pasta and shredded cheese topping was the clear winner, although the garlic was overpowering. During its quick pass through the oven (and much to our surprise), the sauce and the elbows melded into a pleasing consistency while the topping provided a little crunch and a little stretch.

Knowing that Mac & Cheeza is owned by the folks behind Larkin’s Joint in Eagle Rock, Suzy went the soul food route, choosing rice-based pasta, cheese sauce and mix-ins of collard greens and a diced hot link, topped with walnuts. We were most impressed by the collard greens and their accompanying bits of pepper and tomato, which gave a nice tartness to the dish. Unfortunately, the greens also contributed extra moisture, which resulted in a mac that was decidedly on the weepy side. Overall, Suzy’s custom mac seemed more like a casserole than actual macaroni and cheese. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just wasn’t what we were expecting.

So we left Mac & Cheeza in a dejected mood, disappointed by their middling-at-best cuisine. Ironically, we’d later consider this mac the highlight of an extremely depressing sampling of downtown macs! Crazy but true! Stay tuned for the second stop in our downtown mac crawl…

Mac & Cheeza
223 W. 8th Street
Los Angeles CA