Chef Mac's by Marisa Dobson

The line forms before he’s even had time to rip the plastic wrap from his chafing dishes. They know that whatever’s in there is gonna be good. Chef Mac is all by himself — cooking, plating, ringing up orders one at a time. His customers try their best to be patient, mouths watering at the sight of steaming jambalaya, juicy pulled pork, and brisket that you can smell for miles around.

Since I moved back to Baltimore, I’ve been pleased (and just slightly surprised) to discover a number of chefs doing the hard work of running a sustainable business and putting out consistently good food. But, rarely do I run across someone who seems to have a gift for flavor and texture. Let’s just say — I eat out a lot for work and for pleasure, but this is the first time I’ve been moved to write about it. And as far as I can tell, his food is relatively unknown.

Besides this one write-up from (the sadly defunct) City Paper in 2015, Chef Mac seems to have been operating under the radar of the foodie literati. I’m here to tell you that this is what you should eat on Tuesday nights. Come to the Lauraville Farmers Market around 4:30/5pm and line up with the rest of us for Chef Mac’s cajun and creole to-go boxes. 

The pulled pork is juicy and sweet, not the vinegary saliva-flooding style that I grew up with, but hands-down the best pulled pork that I’ve had in Baltimore (caveat: I haven’t visited The BBQ on Greenmount Ave yet…). Chef Mac squeezes a moderate amount of homemade BBQ sauce on top, but not too much. You can still distinctly taste the slow-cooked porky goodness. His mac & cheese is THE best. I was floored. And, I think I’d like to go ahead and posit a theory here: the best mac & cheese is the most non-Instagrammable. Everyone loves the cheese-pull; it makes for a great video. But honestly, that cheese-pull always snaps and is usually the result of subpar cheese. Mac’s mac & cheese has lumps of delicious cheese, the noodles are cooked just right (not mushy and actually al dente), and there’s enough sauce to bind the whole bite without it seeming soupy.

It all crystallized for me when he asked me how I’d like my salmon. This is a man under an anonymous black tent set up on the asphalt of a small, community-focused farmers market — and yet, he’s a Chef in the full sense of the word. He wanted to make me what I desired and was able to execute a perfectly medium blackened salmon on an electric hot plate. He served it with long-grain white rice and a melange of vegetables that you usually see steamed out of their ever-loving identities, but in his hands were the ideal balanced accompaniment to the riot and richness of the rest of the (styrofoam) plate. 

If you’re familiar with and craving creole spice, I’d wholeheartedly recommend Chef Mac’s jambalaya. Like all stews or one-pot dishes, it varies week to week, but it always has a deep and consuming peppery spice to it. The heat makes it impossible to just have one bite — you must continue eating it until nothing remains and then eat something sweet to quell the burn. I recommend ice cream or peach cobbler.

The brisket didn’t last long enough for me to form an opinion about it, but the potato salad did. We ate the brisket so fast that all I could register was: GOOD. The potato salad was again cooked perfectly, not crunchy but not mushy and with the correct balance of creamy and acid. It’s so difficult to cook simple and familiar foods well — I can’t emphasize it enough. Everyone comes to this (most) American cuisine with a set of experiences, and all you can do is execute it well. You can’t ever be their grandmother, but you can take those noodles off in time so that when they’re rewarmed, they’re the right texture. And you can spend the time to slow-cook a pork butt as if it was your own offspring that was going to enjoy it. Chef Mac consistently does this, and that’s why I had to share this with you — and that’s why this is the first Returnee Review.