Unlike all the other restaurants I’ve reviewed, Mac & Cheeza, which has a location in downtown Los Angeles and Bakersfield, doesn’t have a fancy name for its signature dish. Maybe it’s because the owner didn’t want to fall into the trend of leading customers on with snazzy “gourmet” names. Maybe it’s because a single name is too limiting for the eatery’s do-it-yourself nature that starts patrons off with basic precooked noodles and allows endless customization from there. Or, maybe it’s simply because Mac & Cheeza really only serves one thing: macaroni and cheese.
Instead, the dishes are labeled by size; not just the boring small, medium and large, but instead baby mac, momma mac, daddy mac and mac daddy ($5, $10, $20 and $30, respectively). The baby mac is a sufficient portion for a small meal, but also would work well as a single side to, say, a burger or something. Because I was breaking my week-long restriction of no carbs and because Mark and I had ventured all the way from Santa Monica to downtown LA by bus, I wanted something more substantial and went with the momma mac. A Yelp reviewer’s experience with ordering that size made me laugh (and also feel kinda sick): “I’ve come to realize the momma portion must be in reference to the feeling of expecting a noodle baby when you’ve finished. Maybe I just gained five pounds. Maybe I don’t care.” The daddy mac and mac daddy sizes are intended for groups, and over the course of our meal, several people came in to pick up their daddies for take-out.
Once you pick the size, you have to decide on regular elbow noodles or rice ones and cheese-based sauce or soy-based sauce. I didn’t give either of those choices more than a second of thought.
The next step is to add ingredients, first veggies and then meats. Each size comes with one free ingredient, but any extras are a dollar more each. Because I prefer my mac and cheese just straight up (as I state in nearly every review), I really struggled with this step. I like spinach and green onions and black olives, but not necessarily in my macaroni and cheese. Other add-ins included collard greens, peas, jalapeños, mushrooms and tomatoes.
I opted out of veggies and went with a meat: diced hot links. Other options included ground beef, BBQ chicken, tuna, bacon, ham, chorizo and veggie sausage. Mark also opted out of veggies and went with BBQ chicken and bacon.
Lastly is the toppings, which are included with the order: a cheese blend and spicy toasted walnuts. This step is an important one, because once everything is combined in the disposable metal baking tray, the cheese and/or walnuts are sprinkled on top before the creation makes its way through the oven where it’s all heated one last time and the top is toasted. That’s what creates the yummy baked look in the picture.
After all is said and done, I’d have to say I was somewhat disappointed. I know, I know, I worked it all up just to come crashing down. I think the DIY customization is really clever and allows customers to create the dish and taste they want. But, I think the chef needs to go back to the beginning and make some adjustments to the most basic aspect of the dish: the cheese. Aside from using a different noodle, there isn’t much he or she can do there, so making sure the cheese is no less than superb is essential. Unfortunately, I think it was lacking. It was slightly runny and far from creamy. It didn’t have much flavor and am very confused what restaurant a different Yelp reviewer was at when she said it was “rich”. Yes, I know the idea is to add flavor with the variety of other ingredients, but why not make tasty mac and cheese tastier with the ingredients? What about people like me who would rather not add anything? They would be severely bored and disappointed.
I will admit that I regretted not adding more and different ingredients. I ended up eating a lot of Mark’s because his was much tastier and had a thicker consistency because of the additions. The BBQ chicken added a pleasant sweetness that paired surprisingly well with the cheese flavor. The chicken was shredded, which I really liked because the smaller pieces blended better with the noodles than large chunks would. Even though we both agreed that his was better, we didn’t have any trouble polishing off all of his and most of mine.
The restaurant: Mac & Cheeza, Los Angeles
The plate: Momma Mac, $10
The ingredients: Elbow noodles, white cheddar cheese sauce, diced hot links
The verdict: The DIY customization is perfect for mac-and-cheese lovers who like the concept of adding to the American staple; for me, it has a lot to live up to.