Take a look around Jus' Mac's cramped but cute dining room.
I don't know why it's never occurred to me to combine a Frito pie with macaroni and cheese. Nor would I have thought merging the dishes — two of my own idolized comfort foods — would taste so wonderful. Perhaps even if I'd thought of it, I'd have dismissed it as a bridge too far, even for me.
But in execution, the Chili Cheese macaroni and cheese at Jus' Mac is a thing of beauty and never once over the top: The meaty homemade chili is wound through the creamy sauce and pasta in a way that combines the two yet keeps them separate enough not to be confused with chili-mac. A handful of Fritos on top works in combination with crunchy bread crumbs — unnecessary in this context, but still delicious — to provide a nice contrast of textures between the springy pasta and silky sauce, making for an altogether perfect dish.
Enjoying any of the dishes this much is something I never would have expected from Jus' Mac, the Heights restaurant that opened in October 2010 serving — true to its name — only macaroni and cheese. I had rather substantial expectations for the place upon first hearing about its concept, which left me disappointed with the reality for many months after it opened. I had initially imagined a menu that ran the gamut of all that pasta-plus-cheese had to offer: a standard mac 'n' cheese with elbow macaroni in a Mornay sauce perhaps offset by more striking dishes like fusilli, farfalle or conchiglie combined with spinach and pine nuts or roasted chicken, peas and carrots.
The menu that Jus' Mac eventually opened with wasn't so far off, but I still felt it was a bit of a disappointment: The same cavatappi pasta was in every skillet (as with the odd Kraft commercials currently airing on TV, the mac 'n' cheese here is served in cast-iron skillets), and it was clear that the macaroni and cheese base for each skillet was pre-cooked and then assembled before getting a quick run under the broiler to crisp up the bread crumbs on top.
There were good options, to be clear: a Puebla, for example, that combines roasted poblano chiles with Swiss cheese, and the choice to customize your skillet by selecting ingredients from a comprehensive, if pricy, list. (Bacon? Got it. Goat cheese? Got it. Broccoli? Got it.) But the menu stopped there. Jus' Mac really did serve nothing but macaroni and cheese, and it was a shtick I saw wearing out its welcome pretty swiftly. After all, how many times can a person want macaroni and cheese for dinner? And at anywhere from $5 to $8 for only a cup of the stuff? I had a feeling that unless something changed, Jus' Mac wouldn't be long for this world.
And then something did. Jus' Mac did that wonderful thing that restaurants occasionally do and listened to its customers and to critics who warned of macaroni and cheese exhaustion: Add some other menu items, they warned. Any other menu items. No one wants to order deep-fried macaroni-and-cheese balls as an appetizer before their entrée of macaroni and cheese. This isn't the Texas State Fair.
So slowly but surely, Jus' Mac introduced more options. First, salads. Then panini. And in addition to sodas and iced tea, it started stocking an excellent supply of locally produced beverages like Kickin' Kombucha and Saint Arnold beer. Now the selection is broad enough that a night out at Jus' Mac doesn't have to mean just macaroni and cheese — and that means a broader audience for its food.
The additions are actually good, too. I had feared that the restaurant would haphazardly add a few extra items to please the complainers, but that hasn't happened.
All three salads I've tried at Jus' Mac are worthy standalone items, especially the enormous wedge salad topped with an avalanche of blue cheese, hunks of bacon, diced tomatoes and slivers of red onion. It's far too large for one person, making its $6 price tag easier to swallow. The house and Caesar salads are both of a more manageable size and gain bonus points for consistently offering up fresh, crispy produce topped with house-made dressings that are better than expected. I wish that more restaurants made their own dressings in-house, as it's an easy item to make and stock that elevates even the most unassuming piece of lettuce.
The panini, too, are excellent. The bread is nicely toasted, crispy enough to provide a welcome crunch but not so tough that it crushes the delicate ingredients inside. A meatball — or polpetta here — panino here comes filled with soft meatballs in a tangy, not-too-sweet marinara under a soft blanket of mozzarella cheese. A dusting of parmesan on top gives the sandwich exactly the added salty oomph necessary, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself marveling over it one afternoon. After polishing off one big half, I told my dining companion that it was among the best meatball sandwiches I'd ever had in the city.
Right now, the panini selection is far more limited than the mac 'n' cheese selection — six panini to choose from versus a staggering 18 different skillets (not counting the fact that you can get them in a personal, one-cup size or a two-person "regular" size) — but I prefer it that way. In fact, I wish that Jus' Mac would trim down their mac 'n' cheese offerings to a more manageable ten or even a smooth dozen.
Because although the restaurant has made some huge leaps in the 16 months it's been open, that still doesn't mean that all of the macaroni and cheese dishes are good.
The flavors in the Buffalo Chicken mac 'n' cheese are almost intrinsically great: There's very little in this world that couldn't be enhanced by the judicious application of blue cheese and/or Frank's RedHot sauce. Yet there was a lot to be desired in the dish of Buffalo Chicken mac 'n' cheese that was sitting in front of me during a recent weekday evening at Jus' Mac.
The Buffalo Chicken is an example of how the prefabbed macaroni and cheese model can go awry here. The big hunks of chicken that came with the dish were rough, tough and dry. Even though they'd been mostly immersed in cheese sauce for a few minutes, there was nothing the pasta could do in that short period of time to save the dried-out chicken. If it had been cooked in with the macaroni and cheese from the very beginning, casserole-style, the entire skillet could have been a home run in the same way the Chili Cheese dish is.
My friend's skillet across the way was similarly disappointing. But instead of dried-out meat, she was dealing with runny tomatoes in her Rustic mac 'n' cheese. The fresh roasted tomatoes sounded good in concept, but in reality their juices ran rampant throughout the dish. The result was a skillet full of soggy pasta that had been waterlogged (or tomato juice-logged) before she could even finish her salad.
The waterlogging, however, didn't compare to the final straw, when I pulled a brown hair from my dish toward the end. I tried to give the stray hair the benefit of the doubt, but quickly realized it was neither mine (long and blond) nor my friend's (short and black). Worse, it had been baked in. At least I didn't accidentally eat it, though.
I know that hair in and of itself is not dirty, and has little to no chance of transmitting any kind of germs or disease. I know that rationally. The more easily grossed-out side of me, however, doesn't think of the hair as a singularity but rather as a symptom of larger issues at hand. If a hair can get baked into the pasta, that means the cooks aren't wearing hairnets. Which could mean they're not attending to a host of other sanitary issues, either.
A chef friend of mine reminded me later that evening, however, that "humans are making the food back there" and that humans sometimes make mistakes. He was more forgiving of the hair than I, emphasizing that one stray hair does not a health disaster make. And he's right.
Still, I think that if Jus' Mac were to trim the menu a bit, it would make for an easier time all the way around: By eliminating dishes that just don't work or aren't as popular, the cooks could pay closer attention to the dishes they are making and the food would continue to improve at the restaurant overall, as it's already done.
I hope Jus' Mac continues to evolve, and believe it will. After all, its mindfulness in paying attention to its customers and critics means that the restaurant has been successful enough to net a second location. Jus' Mac opened on Lexington Boulevard in Sugar Land in December, and I hear it's already a huge hit.