Have you ever wanted to make a good first impression? Maybe you were going on a blind date, a job interview or meeting your future in-laws and wanted to put your best foot forward because – fair or not – first impressions are like diamonds and last forever.
The same holds true for a restaurant. If a new eatery botches your first visit, there’s a good chance you won’t return for a second meal. Again, this might not be fair because every staff has to learn its processes and work out the kinks and might well deliver a better experience at a later date.
I considered this as I cast a disappointed gaze at the remains of my first meal at I ♥ Mac & Cheese, a new fast and casual dine-in, takeout and delivery spot in Hixson.
I’d spotted the establishment, which is nestled in the middle of a strip mall, while driving down TN-153 around noon. Although its small, nondescript storefront could pass for an eyeglass emporium or a salon, my eyesight sharpens when I’m hungry, and the “♥” in the name caught my attention, prompting a hard right turn into the parking lot.
Building a menu around on one of the world’s great comfort foods seemed brilliant. Is there anything more heartening than a warm, melty forkful of pasta and cheese? Well, yes, actually – a warm, melty forkful of my former mother-in-law’s mac-and-cheese, an oven-baked, golden-crusted wonder of pasta, cheese and butter. Lots of butter.
Maybe my expectations were too high as I scanned the menu, but I didn’t think so. My choices included bowls, grilled cheese sandwiches and vegan options, all of which looked delicious.
Being a first timer, I considered playing it safe and ordering the Classic Mac & Cheese, but the photos of the Buffalo Blue, Chicken Parmesan and Lobster & White Truffle varieties suggested the creative forces behind the restaurant had devised intriguing twists on the classic and I needed to be more adventurous.
So, I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. OK, that might seem like a cop-out, but the Best of Both Worlds appeared to be an elevated version of the original. Imagine, if you will, a grilled cheese sandwich made from sourdough bread, macaroni and cheese, short ribs, barbecue sauce, white cheddar and classic cheddar.
I bet that sounds delicious, especially if you’ve been falling short on carbs. But nope.
If the person who prepared my meal spread the correct amount of butter on the sourdough before grilling it, then they need to recalculate their portions. Punxsutawney Phil will emerge from his hidey hole next February to look for his shadow before the restaurant needs to order more butter.
Frankly, I don’t believe they use butter, which was a letdown, as I was expecting a crispy, buttery crunch as I took my first bite. Also disappointing were the contents of the middle, which were more soupy than cheesy.
Meanwhile, the short ribs were mediocre, the Tater Tots were room temperature and the tomato soup dip was cold. I dislike being this critical, but the meal was what it was.
That said, what is America if not the land of second chances? Although I’ve never been on a blind date, I bungled my first interview at this newspaper. (I was so nervous, the general manager was convinced I couldn’t put together an lucid sentence, let alone conduct a coherent Q&A.) I also made a famously poor first impression on my first set of in-laws. But in each case, I was given a chance to improve on the bad experience.
With this in mind, didn’t I ♥ Mac & Cheese deserve a second chance? People have been eating 99-cent boxes of macaroni and cheese for years, always hoping the next package would be the one that was actually good. How much more, then, did this new establishment deserve another shot?
So, I returned at a later date and ordered the Classic Mac & Cheese. And it was pretty good.
I watched as the girl made my bowl. After scooping big spoonfuls of cooked pasta into a heart-shaped disposable bowl, she covered the contents with two ladles of melted cheese and then placed two slices of cheddar on top of that and ran it through a conveyor oven. (She gave me a choice of several cheeses.)
The result was a meal of cheesy goodness that did not fail to satisfy. I’ll admit to being partial to baked macaroni and cheese, but I ♥ Mac & Cheese has fast and good down pat.
Whether you’re a first-timer or giving I ♥ Mac & Cheese a second chance to make a good impression, you can visit between the hours of 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. and try your luck with the menu. They’re at the far end of TN-153, near the highway, so keep your peeled.