First Taste

New Houston restaurant Jus' Mac heightens the best macaroni and cheese debate

New Houston restaurant Jus' Mac heightens the best macaroni and cheese debate

I guess the downside of months of feverish online anticipation for your new restaurant is sky-high expectations that are hard to meet before working out the kinks.

That's what happened at Jus' Mac, the macaroni and cheese emporium that opened its doors last week in the Heights. Owners Patrick and Kimberly Alvarez hung a sign announcing their coming pasta haven in the former Yale Street Coffee House, and before opening their doors had 1,000 Facebook friends ready and waiting to try one of the almost 20 macaroni and cheese recipes, from the All-American (colby jack and American cheese) to the Popeye (fresh spinach, onions, and mushrooms topped with mozzarella and parmesan) to the Pit Master (brisket with colby jack and barbecue sauce).

Tales of long waits and insufficient parking abounded, but really this quaint 10-table restaurant was never meant to serve oversize crowds.

I dropped by on a Friday night at 8:30, avoiding any rush, and found the (admittedly small and awkward) parking lot half empty.

Orders are taken at a counter, next to the giant menu board displaying all the creative ingredients that can be mixed with macaroni and cheese. Kimberly Alvarez said the offerings could rotate seasonally and that they'll have wheat and gluten-free pasta options. There's also a couple salads and some mac and cheese appetizers, like a fried ball of mac and a mac and cheese spring roll, as well as beer and wine available.

I tried out the Italiano, with meatballs and roasted tomatoes topped with mozzarella and parmesan, and my friend chose the Chili Cheese, essentially a Frito pie crossed with mac and cheese — talk about a stroke of genius.

The wait is longer than at typical counter service restaurants, but isn't particularly terrible, especially since the television is playing a nice mix of mainstream indie videos (think Passion Pit, MGMT, Florence and the Machine, Modest Mouse). The dishes come to the table in mini-skillets hot off the griddle.

The toppings and additions may be elaborate, but the essential mac and cheese is made from a highly-guarded 80-year-old family recipe. It has a nice texture and thickness, the crunchy parmesan works well on top and the toppings are proportioned well, but there's something missing. When I pick up a forkful of mac, I want the other pasta to miss it and try to stop it from leaving. There's a distinct lack of oozing cheesiness, and an excess of oil.

That doesn't mean the mac plates aren't delicious — they are — but when it comes to mac dominance, for my money nothing I tasted at Jus' Mac knocks the rotating daily BRC mac and cheese offerings off their pedestal. But the perfect definition of mac and cheese — should it be goopy like a cheese stew or hold its shape? Is the pasta or the cheese the star? — remains hotly debated.

The dining room at Jus' Mac is simple yet cute, but the addition of plastic tumblers and silverware instead of styrofoam cups and disposable plasticware would make a big difference.

I have a feeling that Jus' Mac is going to make some tweaks as they figure out the lay of the land. As of right now it's a great idea only partially obscured by less-than-perfect execution.

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Jus' Mac Courtesy of Jus' Mac
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Buffalo chicken mac and cheese with bacon, bleu cheese and Frank's hot sauce. Courtesy of Jus' Mac
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Fried mac and cheese balls Courtesy of Jus' Mac
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The Taco-Mexi mac and cheese, with beef, tomato, onion, avocado and tortilla chips.
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