The Search for Portland’s Magic Mac

For premium comfort, you’ve gotta get out of the city. Zigzag’s Skyway Bar and Grill has the mac ’n’ cheese you’ve been dreaming of.

By Kelly Clarke January 25, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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The Skyway offers a mountain of mac toppings, from house brisket and eggs and bacon to gingery jalapeños Chef Hornor jars with his mom’s own bread-and-butter pickle recipe.

Let’s be honest: restaurant mac rarely lives up to the dish lodged in our memory banks. It’s too soggy, too bland, and lacks that processed-salt shock hardwired into our brains since grade school. That is, unless you’re hunkered over a dish of molten noodledom at Skyway Bar and Grill, a tin-ceilinged warren of wood and roaring fireplaces just 15 minutes from the slopes of Mount Hood.

This is the mac you’ve been looking for. Chef Jason Hornor’s deceptively humble casserole tastes more fundamentally mac-y than other macs: plump pasta shellacked in sticky sauce, deeply cheesy and laced with chile fire, crowned with toasty shards and a corona of frizzles, all for $7. It’s awesome.

Maintaining the dish’s homey excellence is a point of pride for its Texas-born creator, who grew up on Kraft boxed mac and Velveeta shells. “There’s an influence there,” Hornor says. “I aim for trash to produce excellence.” Here’s three lessons gleaned from a near-decade of greatness.

Shocked Elbows

Hornor relies on large-gauge, ridged elbow noodles that hang onto the sauce far better than smooth pasta. He boils his noodles until they’re al dente, then drains and shocks ’em in a vat of ice water to prevent sogginess in the finished dish.

Special Sauce

“The sauce? It’s a bastardized Mornay,” says Hornor, name-dropping the über-rich French classic that usually relies on milk, a carefully browned roux, egg yolk, and cheese. The chef reveals that his secret mix, which can go from watery straight to cement sludge if not watched carefully, includes Tillamook medium cheddar and buttery, chile-laden pepper jack. The Skyway goes through up to 66 quarts of the sauce each week.

Bubble Up

Hornor sprinkles his creation with Japanese panko bread crumbs tossed with olive oil, and then pops the casserole into a roaring 500-degree oven—hot enough to bubble up the topping. “If the cheese sauce on the top and side isn’t nice and caramelized, send it back,” he says.

Three Great Macs a Little Closer to Home

1. St. Jack’s Gratin de Macaroni ($16) Mac tastes 100 percent fancier if you eat it from a still-bubbling crock packed with an herby mélange of white cheddar, gruyère, super-funked Fourme d’Ambert, and crisp lardons. Bar menu only.

2. The Rookery’s Baked Mac ’n’ Cheese ($10) All hail Raven & Rose’s bar mac, brimming with springy cavatappi noodles and salty ham bits mixed with an intensely sharp blue cheese, English cheddar-and-ale sauce, and oily garlic-rye nubbins.

3. Branch’s Truffled Macaroni ’n’ Cheese Gratin ($16) Alternate sips of the Alberta bar’s spot-on Blood & Sand with elastic, gruyère-stringed bites of this criminally fragrant truffled mac, served in a baked, cheese-capped bowl the size of a toddler’s head. (NOW CLOSED)

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