Pasta is our favorite meal for breakfast, lunch, dinner and leftovers, so the arrival of Mac Shack is a treat for carb lovers.
It shows the customer care we expect from “Nora’s family” — owners of Nora’s Wine Bar & Osteria — but its prices, menu and decor are much more suited to budget diners.
The place was full of young parents with babies, ‘tweens/teens and college-age students the night we visited.
(The babies were even more entertaining than the pasta chefs.)
The appeal here is pasta your way: pick a pasta (15 types, including gluten-free); pick a sauce (9 basics); toss in cheese, vegetables, herbs and other ingredients (more than 30 options); and, if you’re still feeling peckish, add another protein (7 meats and shrimp).
Pasta and sauce are only $6.
Ingredients are 50 cents each, from asparagus and artichokes to basil pesto, capers and garlic.
That includes cheese: mozzarella, ricotta, gorgonzola. (There are free cheese shakers on each table too.)
The 50-cent proteins include egg and anchovies.
The $1.50 proteins are: sirloin, bacon, ham, shrimp, chicken, sausage, beef, and, of course, meatballs.
All the choices are on view too, which is especially good for those who don’t know their fettuccine from their farro, or can’t decide between wheat pasta or white-flour wagon wheels.
Ingredients are set in little white bowls, just like a chef’s table.
Pastas are prepared in an open kitchen, so diners can see how such pastas as “crazy Alfredo” are made. (Chefs fill a plate with shrimp, sausage, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapenos and mushrooms in a cream sauce with white-flour fettuccine for only $8.99).
There’s a baked ziti for $6.95 and lasagna at $7.25 among 13 prepared pastas.
Prepared pastas include three “baby macs”, from $4.50-$4.95, which are basic, kid-sized pastas.
Then there are three mac ‘n’ cheese varieties for the more adventuresome, using three cheeses (Wisconsin cheddar, Monterey Jack and aged white cheddar, for $5.95); three cheeses with jalapenos (Pepperjack, Monterey Jack and asiago, for $6.25); or the real mac ‘n’ cheese extravaganza, Asiago Blue Mac.
At $6.95, it delivers the pasta of your choice with sharp pecorino romano, blue cheese and asiago, topped with blue cheese crumbles.
Pasta is cooked al dente, although you could probably ask for it to be cooked to the mushy stage, if you or the kids prefer.
Our wheat penne with two kinds of tomatoes (roasted and sun-dried) and portobello mushrooms was better than homemade, perfectly al dente, and full of flavor.
Even better, the portion was so large we split it in two for leftovers the next day.
The guest diner picked the special, sausage and asparagus in a white sauce with wheat penne. He had no leftovers, despite whimpering that the sauce was too rich.
Salads range from $4.50 for greens and tomatoes, to $7.29 for a large, spinach salad with walnuts, pear slices, red onions and balsamic vinaigrette.
Any protein can be added for $1.50 or any of more than 30 ingredients for an extra 50 cents.
The decor is bright and cheerful, and tables are well-spaced for privacy. Mac Shack is a step up from fast food in its design, and worlds away in its food quality and prices.
It’s licensed, for imported and domestic beers, and picnic-sized bottles of California wine.
Soft drinks are $1.65 for a small to $1.95 for a large and include Hi-C Fruit Punch, lemonade and Mr. Pibb’s Powerade Blue.
Or there’s freshly brewed China Mist iced tea, from $1.65-$1.95.
There are many organic choices, healthier options, and compostable dishes and flatware.
Verterra dishes here are made from leaves, so it’s worth visiting Mac Shack just to see this new generation of biodegradables.
Expect a sunny experience, even at night, from welcoming staff, and small touches, like fresh flowers as the restaurant centerpiece.
Mac Shack is a welcome brightener in suburbia, thanks to Nora’s family.
More: Mac Shack, 8680 W. Warm Springs Rd., 702.463.CHEF (2433); macaronishack.com.