The Mac Shack puts a new spin on retro macaroni and cheese
On a recent rainy night, the Mac Shack in Kerrisdale shone like a beacon for those craving comfort food. From the corner of West Boulevard and West 38th Avenue, you could see into the entire restaurant through the windows that wrap around the building. A constant stream of families—with kids ranging from toddlers to teenagers—came and went, jabbering about what they would order or clutching takeout boxes. The cheery eatery was the winter equivalent of an ice cream shop: everyone looked happy to be there.
Like ice cream, macaroni and cheese is a balm for the soul. And the Mac Shack, which opened October 15, aims to provide the “ultimate mac + cheese”. That means dozens of versions of the childhood favourite.
Inspired by a similar restaurant in New York called S’MAC, the Mac Shack is owned by five Vancouver siblings. One of them, Alex Tsakumis, also co-owns Q4 al Centro, and according to marketing developer Chris Tsakumis, the family hopes to eventually franchise the Mac business.
Designed by Vancouver’s Moeski Consulting & Design, the restaurant is a sleek, modern take on a retro rumpus room. Seating is a mix of comfy booths, bar counters, and high-top tables made of reclaimed wood. Wood panelling lines the far wall, updated with a recessed flat-screen TV. Pale orange walls, yellow-plaid bar stools, and amber glass pendant lights give the place a cozy, warm aura. Plenty of booster seats and highchairs are up for grabs.
Part of the restaurant’s appeal to families, no doubt, is its quick-serve concept. You order at the counter, grab some cutlery (real, not plastic), seat yourself, and wait for a runner to deliver your meal.
The menu is almost exclusively macaroni and cheese, which is served in delightful cast-iron skillets. The casseroles come in three sizes: 6-inch for an individual ($5 to $12), 7.5-inch for up to two people ($9 to $18), and 10-inch for three to four people ($16 to $26). There are 11 “favourite” varieties to choose from including a Classic with aged white Cheddar, Bacon Cheese Burger Mac with ground beef, and Creamy Pesto Chicken Mac with mozza and Provolone cheeses.
If none of these grab you, you can build your own version. The standard is a twirly white macaroni, but options include whole-wheat macaroni and fresh, house-made elbow macaroni. For sauces, choose from cream, marinara tomato, or a rosé. (Gluten-free versions are also available, along with gluten-free pasta.) Then pick from 10 kinds of cheese, such as goat, Gruyère, Asiago, and Daiya lactose-free cheese (suitable for vegans). The next step is adding veggies, such as mushrooms and caramelized onions, meat or seafood like chorizo and shrimp, and seasonings such as truffle oil, chipotle peppers, and roasted garlic. Basic green salads and tomato soup ($4 to $9) round out the menu, along with a sourdough grilled-cheese sandwich filled with a layer of macaroni and cheese ($6.90).
The first time I visited, I opted for the Brooklyn, a mac and cheese made with a mild blue cheese and strips of beef, all drizzled with a balsamic reduction. I enjoyed watching the cooks in the open kitchen sautéing the pasta, pouring it into a cast-iron skillet, topping it with cheese, and then browning it all under the red-hot broiler. Everything promised warmth right up to the pot-holder on the handle of the skillet placed in front of me. So it was quite a letdown to dig in and find the pasta just passably warm. The dish was good, but like soup, part of the point of this comfort food is that it’s hot.
On a subsequent visit, two macs arrived similarly warm while a third was a satisfactory temperature. The Lobster Mac had nice pieces of lobster and oyster mushrooms, but despite its luxurious concept, it didn’t taste gourmet: there were too many flavours competing in the sauce, made with lemon, dill, truffle oil, and roasted garlic. The Ultimate was more of a chunky pasta casserole than a true mac and cheese. With a tomato-sauce base, it had chicken, chorizo, shrimp, bacon, bell peppers, broccoli, and mushrooms, and was topped with mozzarella and Gruyère.
On the side, my West Coast salad was very fresh with crisp cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and peppers, but I found the raspberry vinaigrette cloyingly sweet, and the honey-roasted pecan chunks tasted like they belonged in breakfast cereal.
Call me a purist, but my favourite dish by far was the Four Cheese mac, which was creamy and delicious with Provolone, Gruyère, Cheddar, and aged white Cheddar. At $6 for a small skillet, it’s a steal, too, and big enough for an adult.
Kids 10 and under get an even better deal: $6 buys a Mini Mac with milk or juice and a fresh cookie. Options include the classic mac or the cheeseburger, tuna, or hot-dog versions.
While it doesn’t beat homemade mac and cheese (the real stuff, not Kraft Dinner), the Mac Shack has a great concept. It’s stylish, affordable, and family friendly. Plus, it’s licensed (two reds and two whites by the glass or bottle, and Granville Island beer on tap) so grownups can take their comfort in whatever form they need it.