For a restaurant that specializes in just one thing, Elbows Mac n' Cheese is busy in every sense of the word. On a Friday night, the downtown Brea, fast-casual restaurant is so packed that people prowl around patrons finishing their meals, waiting to pounce on soon-to-be empty chairs.
The menu is just as busy: It boasts nearly 20 varieties of macaroni and cheese, as well as some salads, sandwiches, and a carb-laden appetizer menu with five variations on French fries, not including the pretzel bites and fried mac n' cheese bites. They also inexplicably offer pizza and beignets.
The restaurant's desire to provide menu variety is overwhelming, a feeling that spills out into the tiny square space. It appears divided between two concepts: modern whimsy and rustic Americana. The child-like Comic Sans menu headings and ridiculous dish titles (Do You Want a Pizza Me, for macaroni with pepperoni), bright orange walls, and booths with orange and gray pillows are in stark contrast with the adjacent brick walls and raised wood tables.
While the pungent smell of cheese wafting through the air is potentially appealing, it's headache-inducing when coupled with the hype-driven crowd and busy space, stuffy from the sardine-packed bodies.
Once you manage to order at the counter and find a free table, your food will take much longer than a fast-casual place should, as the young servers circle the entire floor before figuring out who ordered what.
One could argue that Elbows Mac n' Cheese is still finding it's legs, and hiccups should be forgiven, but they've run a successful location in Cerritos for three years. Ambiance and service basics should not elude them.
Is the macaroni and cheese good? Sure: It's embellished noodles and béchamel. Even the blue-box variety of mac n' cheese is good. Elbows Mac n' Cheese is certainly a step above dorm room easy-mac, but you'll pay for that altitude. The regular portion averages $10, while the barely discernible larger portion is $12+.
According to the cashier, When Pigs Fly is the most popular macaroni. A mix of gruyere, swiss and applewood bacon, it comes out sizzling in an untouchably hot, round ceramic baking dish. Rich is an understatement: the dish should be followed by a prompt nap. The smoky bacon is a bit overwhelming, but bacon-fiends may enjoy that. The breadcrumb and cheese topping forms an impenetrable crust around the edges, made even more so by the flimsy plastic fork provided. Nevertheless, that textural contrast is welcome. Gruyere and swiss are wonderful melting cheeses, though their strong flavors compete with the smoky bacon. I made the mistake of downing this with a bottled cream soda: the cloying soda coated my mouth just as badly as the rich macaroni.
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Easy Cheesy Caprese, a bruschetta and macaroni hybrid, is brighter, though I'd hesitate to call anything at Elbows light. Mozzarella, parmesan, garlic, basil and tomatoes mingle with the noodles, repeated in a decent bruschetta topping. It smells heavenly, but where flavors and smell are bright, texture lacks. This dish is soupier than When Pigs Fly, perhaps due to the higher water content of mozzarella. It also came out lukewarm because of the cold bruschetta topping.
The appetizers seem superfluous: who wants an order of fried potatoes on a stick right before a gruyere, bacon and noodle bomb?
As it stands, the only difference between brewery-restaurant macaroni and Elbows' is menu variety and ridiculous dish names printed in Comic Sans. And there is never a legitimate use for Comic Sans.