Since Mac closed on North Mississippi Avenue nearly two years ago, Portland has lacked a brick-and-mortar spot dedicated to crafting adult-oriented iterations of mac and cheese. You can still find a damn fine bowl of rich, garlicky spold mac at Le Bistro Montage or even bougier varieties at Grassa. But patrons who'd rather avoid the formality of going to an actual restaurant and ordering every 10-year-old's favorite food have had little to work with, aside from the occasional food cart.
Though it isn't exactly the walk-in one would expect, Mac'd still fills this void quite wonderfully. Technically, it is the first Portland outpost of the popular San Francisco-based custom mac-and-cheese bar. More specifically, it's just a window on the side of a commissary kitchen that used to be a strip club. If you want to hang out, you'll sit at a picnic table less than 50 yards from the din of Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard. Luckily, the dudes in the window understand this is especially unfun in winter, so they'll take your phone number and text you when your order is ready. Eating in the car was a popular option for the handful of stoned, coatless teenagers who trickled through on our first visit.
Ordering is a linear process similar to Chipotle's. A bowl is assembled by choosing a noodle type, one of six sauces—which include a decadent pesto sauce and a potent jalapeño flavor, alongside basics like garlic and cheddar jack—and various toppings and mix-ins like broccoli, chorizo, truffle oil or hot dog.
We went with each of the premade varieties on our first visit, mainly because the BBC—a mix of chicken, bacon and buffalo sauce ($11)—promised a dusting of ground-up Flaming Hot Cheetos. Whether they stiffed us on the topping or it takes a dip in flavor when combined with heat is a mystery, but the garnish failed to live up to its promise. The rest of the ingredients were excellent, with a tangy buffalo sauce complementing the zest of the cheddar, but you may want to ask for an extra shake of the Cheetos if that's what brought you here in the first place.
The other two premade dishes were great as well. The pesto-based Green Machine popped with basil flavor, and the addition of peas and broccoli broke up the sameness of the texture. The portions here would give Jamie Oliver pause, so it's essential to mix in an assortment of veggies and proteins to keep your palate from tiring. That being said, the Meat Lover ($14) accomplishes the task perfectly, with a glistening hunk of pulled pork and short rib, both of which take on a sweetness that contrasts well with the sour sharpness of the cheddar. It's an impressive amount of food, and unless you're baked out of your mind, it's easy to save the uneaten half for lunch at a later date.
The DIY ingredients are hit or miss, but the nature of Mac'd makes it pretty hard to ruin a dish entirely. We classed it up with tomatoes, bacon, broccoli and shrimp (an extra $3) in the melted jack and garlic sauce and found the flavor of everything, save the protein, lost in an overwhelming mire of garlic. It's hard to imagine a vegetarian feeling like a true winner in this situation, but the sheer amount of meat-free add-ins means that, with some extended tinkering, it should take long to create a craveable customized dish.
Mac'd succeeds in offering some innovation without losing sight of the fact that this is a basic, universally adored foodstuff. No amount of toppings and distractions can make up for bad noodles or a sauce that leans too heavily on salt to leave an impression, and whether keeping it simple or going wild with a creamy, meaty fantasy concoction, you can't really go wrong. You may be eating in your car, but it'll still be fun and delicious.
EAT: Mac'd, 5145 SE McLoughlin Blvd., 503-995-8448, getmacd.com. 11 am-11 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am to 1 am Friday-Saturday.