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Mac Shack a palate pleaser with create-your-own option

OK, I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much.

Yeah, I truly try to have no preconceived notions before reviewing a place, but come on, how good could fast-food pasta be?

Pretty good, as it turns out. Really good.

Actually, Mac Shack isn’t really fast-food pasta. It’s a step up – counter-service pasta – but still, curiosity is mostly what drew me.

Here’s the deal: You walk in and walk up to the counter to order. If you want, you can do a create-your-own option, choosing from 11 pasta variations (including whole-wheat and gluten-free), 10 sauces, seven kinds of meat and 20 other ingredients, which are vegetables, cheeses and those irresistible miscellaneous items such as mushrooms and capers. Or you can choose from among a dozen predesigned dishes (one of which is based on farro instead of pasta, which is a great bit of variety), or a half-dozen mac-and-cheese dishes or, if you’re a pasta Philistine, a salad. After you order and pay, they give you a number to take to your table, and somebody brings your food when it’s ready.

As we usually do when working, we went with a split plan, one create-your-own, one pre-engineered. And so it would be the Farm House ($9.25) and the rigatoni and marinara ($7 for the basics), plus meatballs ($1.50) and sun-dried tomatoes (50 cents). And, for contrast, some garlic loaves (two for $1.50).

The Farm House was based on farfalle, also known as butterfly pasta, which was very suitable for the creamy sauce that cloaked it. The pasta was perfectly al dente, which for farfalle means that it was a tiny bit starchy to the bite in the gathered center, softer toward the fanned edges, and those fans were very effective collectors and transporters for the sauce. I’d probably have preferred that the ham be thicker instead of in deli-style slices, but that’s truly a minor quibble. It and the sweet green peas were strewn through the dish in great profusion. The person who took our order offered to sort of supersize the dish for an extra $2.99, but we were glad we demurred; this was quite a generous portion as it was.

Our create-your-own dish was successful as well, the rigatoni al dente, the marinara possessed with a respectable amount of depth, the sun-dried tomatoes in profusion. Even the meatball – which can pose problems for even the best Italian cooks – was good, moist, just soft enough and flavorful. Our only quibble here (and it was, again, a minor one) is that the menu listed “meatballs” and we got a meatball; closer inspection of the list of sides showed a serving of two meatballs for twice the price we paid.

As for the garlic loaves? Meh. They were fat breadsticks, with not much of the way of garlic or anything else besides bread.

Service was perfunctory but courteous, which is about all we can expect in a counter-service restaurant. The place itself was neat and tidy, with a suitably streamlined atmosphere.

We’d arrived fairly early in the evening and found the place quiet, but just a little later – about when people had time to leave work, get the kids and decide where to eat – lots and lots of families were coming in, and most of them seemed quite familiar with it.

It was no wonder. Mac Shack doesn’t offer a transcendent culinary experience, but if you’re looking for something good, quick and not terribly expensive – and if you don’t have an aversion to carbs – they’re all over it like white on pasta.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or hrinella@reviewjournal.com.

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