Mac's Headroom

Mac & awkward silence

View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "The Future of Macaroni and Cheese."

Hamburger whisperers often find entente at Father's Office, at least when they can find a seat. Dumpling freaks mostly agree on Din Tai Fung. Even the gnarliest of pizza mavens can occasionally be held to an accord. But macaroni and cheese is a subject on which no two people agree, a war between fanciers of aged English cheddar and those who claim that nothing but plastic-smooth Velveeta will do; people who like expensive Italian pennette and people who insist on American elbow macaroni; admirers of elaborate panko-buttressed crusts and cranks who would just as soon vote for a Democrat as admit anything like a bread crumb into the dish.

Calvin Trillin's paradigm is not just Kraft Dinner but day-old Kraft Dinner. Some classic recipes call for a vaguely cheese-flavored béchamel; others for a vaguely béchamel-inflected cheese. The New York Times caused blood-cholesterol levels to soar on the Eastern seaboard a few years ago when it printed a macaroni and cheese recipe that called for a full pound-and-a-half of cheddar cheese to sauce a mere pound of noodles, a recipe that in practice ended up as a giant block of cheese laced with stray bits of macaroni, like the straw in an adobe brick.

My own macaroni and cheese tends to be both suave and tinted an alarming shade of green, stirred with a bit of white sauce sluiced with an alarming but not overwhelming quantity of Sage Derby from England, a substance I persuaded my daughter to believe came from cheese mines on the dark side of the moon. (The best mac 'n' cheese of course is made from the scraps and ends of cheese hiding at the back of a cheese head's refrigerator, but if you don't want to find a Hazmat team creeping around the kitchen door, you should probably refrain about tossing in that half-eaten round of Époisses.)

Where is the best restaurant macaroni and cheese? Fight it out among yourselves. But the mac at Larkin's, the evolved soul food restaurant in Eagle Rock, has been considered one of the better versions of the dish since the place opened a few years ago, a muscly, multicheese version made even better by its proximity to Larkin Mackey's fried chicken and spicy collard greens. The mac is considered a side dish, but it also makes a pretty good lunch.

Mac & Cheeza is Mackey's new restaurant downtown, a narrow, high-ceilinged storefront on the edge of the Garment District, furnished sparely with a couple of padded benches and a few low, Design Within Reach end tables: a fragrant, modern machine dedicated solely to the cult of macaroni and cheese.

Are there a hundred kinds of macaroni and cheese here, ones made with exotic cheeses, arcane noodles and cooking methods beloved by Martha Washington, Fannie Farmer and Escoffier? There are not: You have it Mac & Cheeza's way, stirred with a slightly grainy cheese sauce and baked under a cheese crust, or you don't have it at all. (If you've come on the right day, you can have your crust enriched with crushed Cool Ranch Doritos if that's your sort of thing.) Mac & Cheeza is not a temple of cuisine, although the macaroni art on the walls is as beautiful as a Van Gogh painting reinterpreted by a kindergarten class at crafts time.

You choose the size of the container you would like to have your mac baked in, from the plenty-big Baby Mac to the absurdly large Mac Daddy, which is enough to feed the entire USC track team. You can choose between rice noodles and regular noodles, soy cheese or regular cheese. Then, as at Cold Stone Creamery, you pick out your mix-ins: jalapeño chiles and bacon, black olives and hot links, chopped scallions and chorizo, or any combination of the above, which are stirred into the macaroni before it goes into the oven.

Larkin's epochal spicy collard greens with peppers are delivered straight from the restaurant, but in my experience they tend to make the mac 'n' cheese too watery. The last time I was in, I managed to persuade the counter guy to sell me a container on the side, but I got the feeling he had never done it before, and he had no idea what to charge.

As at Pinkberry, the product seems to be infinitely customizable but comes out pretty much the same. It is superb drunk food — on weekends, Mac & Cheeza stays open until 2 a.m. And you get a shot at the classic banana–Nilla Wafer pudding from the recipe of Mackey's mom, an intense, thin custard that resolves into a divine containerful of sweet banana-spiked mush. Is this the mac 'n' cheese of the future? It might be.

MAC & CHEEZA: 223 W. 8th St., dwntwn. (213) 622-3782, Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m. -2 a.m. MC, V. No alcohol. Street parking only. Takeout and delivery. Serving sizes range from $5 to $25, mix-ins extra. Recommended dishes: macaroni and cheese, banana pudding.

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