The great mac ’n’ cheese caper
Who is this coterie of moniker-sporting muckety-mucks, and where did they discover Sacramento’s best cheese and macaroni?
The back room at Ink Eats & Drinks is dark, sparse and private. Three white bowls of joyously yellow macaroni ’n’ cheese are centered along the long steel table.
As they have done at other downtown restaurants for over six months, Colby Jack, Easy Cheesy, Chedda, McCheesy and Gouda Buddha are assessing the caliber of the bowls’ contents. And Ink draws them, because frankfurter slices punctuate the mac ’n’ cheese, which is also sprinkled with bread crumbs.
“I’m not usually into spice, but it works,” Gouda says of the kick contained in the dog slices.
“Kielbasa? I would order this dish again in a heartbeat,” Jack enthuses.
“Classes up the macaroni” is Chedda’s take on Ink’s ditching elbow pasta for spiral noodles.
These five—and another, Elbow Noodle, who misses the Ink pilgrimage because of business—are on a mission to discover Sacramento’s best macaroni and cheese. They give every appearance of being experts: They speak authoritatively about the world’s most popular comfort food and how it’s either mangled or transmogrified by Sacramento chefs.
And the crew ought to be authoritative by now, they’ve been riffing this gig since last year’s “Summer of Cheese,” to quote Easy.
Yes, admittedly, the entire caper is a little spooky. Knowing all six are big-deal governor’s office muckety-mucks compounds the spookiness. But this is far more than some cheesy folie à six. Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, didn’t carry out nearly as much empirical study as these mac ’n’ cheeseheads.
Exhibit one: Each member of Team Cheese gets an 8-by-5 rating card. Besides offering space for comment, they also log date, location, time, serving size, presentation, consistency, color and price of the mac ’n’ cheese. And there’s a rating system: one through five, five being “Superb Beyond Belief,” one being “Very Bad Indeed.”
No public debate on macaroni merits and demerits may ensue until all cards are filled out and complete.
Born of an obsessive affection for this Italian dish, whose lineage dates to the 13th century, the Mac ’N’ Cheese Mob’s quest is jump-started by a 2008 Sacramento Bee, or “Insect,” article purporting to list this town’s best places to devour that which Thomas Jefferson first served in the White House in 1802.
Gouda and Co. reject the conclusions of the Insect scribe and vow, musketeerlike, to collectively ferret out the cheesy truth.
Noms de fromage are created. And a grid. Places like Boudin SF, California Cafe and The Cheesecake Factory are nixed in favor of a more downtown and Midtown universe: Wolfgang Puck Express, Esquire Grill, Jack’s Urban Eats, Paesanos, Pronto, Chops and La Bou.
Colby flies solo at Ambrosia Café.
Ink, on the perimeter of Team Cheese’s kill zone, makes the list because of the “dog thing.”
Ravings about truffle oil and nine types of cheese by the ill-informed intern in Chedda’s office leads to a final inclusion of 58 Degrees & Holding Co.
Many factors influence the ultimate mac ’n’ cheese assessment. Tabletop stamina can be determinative. Congealed after 15 minutes or still festive? Table lifespan can affect the mac’s travel capability—an important consideration for frenetic governor’s office employees. Can it rebound, like Lazarus, through the restorative power of microwave?
Easy explains the two-track appraisal system. Paesanos, La Bou and Wolfgang Puck compete in the quick, easy, mac ’n’ cheese-to-go category. Esquire, Ink and 58 Degrees fight maco-a-maco for the high-end gourmet crown. Paesanos scores well in both leagues.
The team doesn’t always agree. Colby and Chedda gush over 58 Degrees, handing out scores of four and five, respectively. Gouda grudgingly settles on three, but sniffs that the sauce is faux, more of a creamy alfredo. Charges of close-minded purist are leveled.
Gouda likes the crumbled crostini at 58, however. She wins agreement from Colby, who says the bread bits “offset the rich cheese,” of which there are four in the sauce, not nine: jack, Gruyère, white cheddar and smoked mozzarella. Suspicions are raised that inclusion of jack influences Colby’s objectivity.
Elbow doesn’t dig the crostini and contends the sauce lacks “pizazz.” Easy is bluntly unforgiving: “Bland. Not impressed.”
The disparity of opinions leads to a 3.7 average team rating.
There is unanimity, however, in the opprobrium heaped on La Bou. Based on the team’s vehemence, La Bou’s mac ’n’ cheese is an abomination that should’ve been erased from the planet with Sodom and Gomorrah.
“Terrible,” quoth Easy.
“They need to take it off the menu,” snarls Colby.
Particularly galling is a poster near the register pimping the macaroni, which the team considers an attempt to lure unsuspecting diners to culinary death.
Also pummeled is Jack’s.
“You get what you pay for,” sneers McCheesy. A serving, which the team unanimously agrees is small, sets you back $2.75.
Gouda trumps: “Tasted old. Couldn’t even finish three forkfuls. Its only redeeming quality is its price.” Elbow disagrees: “The serving bowl was the best thing about it.” Chedda cuts to the chase: “Bad.”
The team average for Jack’s is a 2.
Despite a short tabletop lifespan and being “hidden” in the make-your-own-pasta part of the menu, Paesanos’ $9.50 offering scores higher.
Gouda awards 4 “dancing macaroni-laden forks.” All cite the spiral noodles and complimentary garlic bread as bonuses. Colby likens it to the grail: Kraft Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese. McCheesy lowers the average to 3.4 with a frosty “not cheesy enough.”
Despite presentation being an unceremonious scoop into the bowl, the stalwart $2.95 mac at Wolfgang Puck is judged tops in its class with a team average of 4. “Fantabulous,” gushes Elbow.
The woman at Wolfgang’s with the crush on Elbow and the resulting larger-than-normal portions is not a factor, the team swears.
Colby thoroughly chronicles his solo excursion to Ambrosia. A “cold, cheesy brick” is the dish before it’s cooked, but then through the cooking process is “transformed into warm, soothing cheesy goodness that is the perfect fit on a cold winter day.”
Chops wins few kudos. Its service is sharply criticized. “You need three hours for lunch,” Chedda groans.
“Very bland,” says Gouda. “Like Jack’s,” Chedda responds.
“Biting into this was like biting into fried chicken. The pasta was dry and lukewarm. Poor service really impacts my final opinion,” confesses Colby. Only McCheesy’s 3.5 rating lifts Chops’ team average to 2.5.
Prior to Ink, Esquire—with a unanimous 4.5 team rating—had the gourmet gold locked: spiral noodles, sharp white cheddar, reasonable $6.50 price and good reheatability. Every base smartly tagged.
And, after Ink, that’s where Esquire stays. Despite praise for creativity, Ink gets the silver with just under a 4 average. McCheesy cryptically says something is missing but doesn’t know what. Chedda considers it so-so, a 3.5 dragging down the average.
With the Days of Cheese behind them, a sense of loss flickers through the team. There’s talk of directing scrutiny on other foods. French fries, perhaps. Frozen yogurt. Wherever they turn next, Team Cheese leaves the level playing field with their game faces on, having given 110 percent.
Sacramento’s macaroni ’n’ cheese final grades: Ink Eats & Drinks, 2730 N Street, (916) 456-2800: just under 4.0. Wolfgang Puck Express, 1100 14th Street, (916) 446-0633: 4.0 average. Esquire Grill, 1213 K Street, (916) 448-8900: 4.5 (unanimous winner). Jack’s Urban Eats, 1230 20th Street, (916) 444-0307: 2.0. Paesanos, 1806 Capitol Avenue, (916) 447-8646: 3.4. Chops, 1117 11th Street, (916) 447-8900: 2.5. La Bou, 1355 J Street, (916) 448-5233: off the charts (bad). Ambrosia Café, 1030 K Street, (916) 444-8129: “perfect on a cold day.” 58 Degrees and Holding Co., 1217 18th Street; (916) 442-5858: 3.7.