Sometimes you just need a gastronomic hug. Whether it’s because you had a hard day, or you’re cold, or you’re already tired of your New Year’s resolution to eat nothing but kale, at some point you’ll inevitably just want something warm and satisfying. For this many of us turn to macaroni and cheese, a humble dish that is having a moment that hopefully will last forever.
Santa Fe now has its very own dedicated mac-and-cheese restaurant, Macalicious, located on Guadalupe Street next to Fire & Hops. The concept is not new (Homeroom in Oakland made it famous), and there are some other items on the menu — a few grilled cheeses, queso (notice a theme?) — but the main offerings are all versions of the classic.
The spot is a cozy little former house — the bathroom has a bathtub in it — and inside, it’s utterly unpretentious. The walls are mostly orange, the seating is garage-sale humble, and the drinks are served in disposable plastic cups. Seating in the main dining room is limited, and for our money, the best spot in the house — at least, until the patio opens in the spring — is at the counter just off the kitchen.
The mac-and-cheese dishes come in three sizes — small (14 ounces, for one), medium (22 ounces, for two), and large (serves 5-6 and is only available as a takeout order with at least an hour’s notice). The 14-ounce is plenty for one person; on each visit, our table and every other table needed to-go containers for the other half of the meal. Every dish looks the same — a mound of gooey orange-yellow carbs and cheese covered with a blanket of breadcrumbs that hide the delights underneath. You can go with the Classic, a traditional mac and cheese with cheddar and Monterey Jack, or the Four Cheese with smoked gouda, fontina, Parmesan, and ricotta, but Macalicious offers a suite of more involved offerings as well.
The best iteration we tried was the Shroom and Truffle, an amalgamation of sautéed portobello and shiitake mushrooms with fontina and ricotta cheese, which tasted like it had been liberally sprinkled with truffle oil. The mushrooms were chunky and plentiful, breaking up the texture, and the addition of ricotta was inspired, creating a creamy softness. Flavors were subtly earthy and pungent, and despite the size of the serving, you might, if you sit there long enough, keep putting it in your mouth until it’s suddenly gone. The next best was the Carbonara, a version of classic pasta carbonara with thick bacon, mushrooms, and peas with mozzarella and Parmesan. Everything about this dish was satisfying — salt, fat, sweet peas, and chunks of perfect mushroom. It was a tad extra salty, perhaps from the combination of bacon and Parmesan, but not unpleasantly so.
Some of the other more adventurous flavors are really a matter of taste. The Mexican, for example, comes mixed with chorizo, jalapeños, salsa, and Cholula. The flavors are strong, and you really have to like the tangy, vinegary flavor of Cholula, but if that’s your thing, it marries nicely with the mac-and-cheese base, if overpowering it a bit. We also tried the Adovada special, an amalgamation of red-chile stewed pork, red chile, and the mac-and-cheese base. The red chile here also overpowered the mac and cheese, but the meat was fork-tender, and if you like your zesty Southwest flavors to be prominent, this is just the thing.
We sampled the Antonio, named after Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (the chef-owner of Macalicious, Theo Gio, is a Pittsburgh native and rabid Steelers fan). The Antonio was born out of Brown telling ESPN his favorite Thanksgiving dish was a combination of his mother’s sweet potato casserole and her macaroni and cheese. Macalicious’ Antonio contains chunks of roasted sweet potatoes, maple syrup, brown sugar, and candied bacon, and is rather off-puttingly sweet (though not as sweet as the ingredients would suggest). For anyone but a dedicated sugar hound (or a child), the Antonio might be a bit much.
In case you need comforting but are both lactose and gluten-intolerant, Macalicious offers the Heaven (ostensibly so-called because it is virtuous), a version with gluten-free brown rice pasta, sautéed portobello mushrooms, and roasted red pepper cashew “cheese.” Macalicious also offers a few salads to cut all that cheese — including salads with cheese. We tried a classic wedge salad of iceberg lettuce topped with blue cheese and bacon. It was a beautiful iteration, the iceberg fresh, the blue cheese tart and creamy. The bacon, a divinely crispy amalgamation of salt and sugar, is some of the best in town.
The key to this kind of restaurant is doing something simple very well, opting for a classic delivery of exactly what you might be seeking in comfort food. This is your grandmother’s mac and cheese — made from scratch but not fussy, with fresh, premium ingredients that are still not necessarily farm-to-table. It is a sure crowd-pleaser, perfect for kids, and exactly along the lines of what you’re envisioning when you want a warm tummy hug.
And because a meal of comfort food is nothing without dessert, Macalicious is there for your favorite final course. The Santa Fe, an ice-cream sundae coated in cornflakes and piñon nuts, is the kind of thing that seems designed for children but that their parents will be happy to share — vanilla ice cream covered in a crunchy shell, topped with whipped cream (from a can, but that’s OK) and chocolate fudge sauce. But to really experience the decadence, try the candied bacon, a rather large strip of thick bacon on a stick coated in cinnamon and sugar that tastes like pure insanity. It’s difficult to take for more than a bite or two — we suggest you share — but is worth trying at least once.
Currently, Macalicious is open only for lunch — the owner is a server at Geronimo at night — but that may change when they get their beer and wine license in, hopefully, the spring. The restaurant is a one-man show (for now), operated entirely by the tireless Gio, so expect to wait just a little while for your food if it’s busy. There is also a tantalizing menu of breakfast items that will be served in the future, including some kind of “mac-and-cheese muffin.” Mac and cheese — it’s what’s for breakfast in 2018.