Amped! The Buffalo Chicken macaroni and cheese.
Out past East Towne, between Madison and Sun Prairie, new development is filling in what used to be farmland in the town of Burke. It's now Burke Towne. It looks like Anywhere, U.S.A., and around the flagship retail of Costco and Target, small shopping nodules are popping up. They're not even oblong enough to be strip malls; they're McNuggets of retail connected by mazes of parking spaces.
There, MACS Macaroni and Cheese Shop is joined by national and regional chains -- Which Wich, Orange Leaf Yogurt and Starbucks hard by a Rocky Rococo. A new Monk's is being built across the street. MACS is a micro-chain itself, with its original location in Wisconsin Dells, and it is surely franchise-friendly. Like Chimmie's, the South American-influenced sub shop in Fitchburg, MACS is good enough to reproduce many times over.
As you've doubtless already guessed, MACS specializes in macaroni and cheese, available in plain form but gussied up in 11 other over-the-top versions that arrive in adorable individual-size iron skillets. And they are alarmingly, frighteningly delicious.
"Addictive" is not a word I like to use in reference to food. (Because no matter how tempting a dish might be, it is not heroin.) I might have to reconsider this policy in the context of MACS' Buffalo Chicken Mac. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking of its leftovers in my refrigerator, and suddenly a 2 a.m. snack seemed like a great idea. As I forced myself to reject this activity, I wondered how it would taste for breakfast.
The macaroni and cheese here -- gooey, salty, greasy and creamy -- is built on a chubby ribbed elbow macaroni that retains enough bite to hold up to the onslaught of toppings. The creamy base is usually a blend of cheddar and mozzarella, and some versions are amped with additions of sour cream, pepper jack, cream cheese, ranch dressing, provolone, blue cheese or a combination of these. The aforementioned Buffalo Chicken, for instance, boasts provolone, mozzarella and blue cheese as well as chunks of chicken and plenty of buffalo sauce, which is all sort of explosive -- in a good way, though it settles pretty rapidly into guilt.
The Buffalo Chicken is neck-and-neck in pleasure production with the Jalapeño Popper Mac, which combines pepper jack, mozzarella and cream cheese. And bacon.
Servings come in two sizes, Regular and Mac Daddy. Asked to quantify the sizes of these portions, a staffer responded that regular "would probably fill up someone who was not really very hungry" and that the Mac Daddy was "twice that"; she couldn't provide ounces or calorie counts.
However, armed with carryout containers of size Regular and Mac Daddy entrees and an ordinary home kitchen scale, this former lit major was able to conclude that the regular size represents about a half-pound of cheesy goodness. Which really seems enough for a single serving for someone who is not in the process of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Mac Daddy is a pound or more of mac.
Sadly, the Popeye Mac, the sole veggie offering, with spinach and sautéed mushrooms, doesn't pop. The fresh spinach is a nice touch; there's just not enough of it to make a taste dent.
The pièce de résistance Hangover Mac, with three cheeses, bacon, hot dog slices, green pepper, onions, mushrooms, hash browns and sriracha, is better than it sounds. The hash brown element seems weird but functions, like breadcrumbs, as a punctuation mark on the top crust. This one makes you wonder why MACS chose suburbia instead of State Street, though at 5:30 p.m. every weeknight I stopped by, the small dining area in the contemporary/industrial/large-windowed space was filled with couples and young families.
What MACS desperately needs is a better side salad. If a rational diner is attempting to balance a dinner of carbs, fat and dairy, salad is a natural choice. But MACS' wedge "garden salad" is uninspired iceberg mostly not in a wedge, with a confetti of carrot, fresh mushrooms and, unnecessarily, several generous handfuls of cheese. It should hardly be necessary to point out that if you are attempting to balance a meal of cheese, you don't want to do it with more cheese.
Some 21st-century greens, with radical add-ons like beets, green pepper or broccoli, would be so much better and, at $6.25, theoretically possible. Just witness the great fresh salads served at Ian's Pizza on State.
MACS also makes sandwiches in similar flavor combos to its macaroni and cheese. Dessert is -- well, I wasn't expecting poached pears, but cheesecake? The turtle version was sweet, but didn't have distinctive cheese notes and carried a little aftertaste of refrigerator. Cookies and chocolate cake are also available. Just in case you want to head out and tackle the Ice Age Trail after dinner.