Was it only yesterday that restaurants opening in the tonier locals of the city packed their menu with chef-driven dishes with locally procured ingredients and prodigious wine lists? Those days have evaporated and now we have new places to play. One of these is the cavernous 345-seat Taco Mac, the Charlotte store of a 31-year-old restaurant chain by the Atlanta-based Tappan Street Restaurant Group. Taco Mac has 27 stores in the Atlanta area, one in Tennessee, one in SouthPark and the possibility of two more stores opening in the Charlotte area in 2011.
The interior is basic: The motif is beer and televisions. In fact, some of the bar tables have beer taps. That's right: beer taps on the table. The patio offers another 54 seats. The upstairs is not as fun as the first floor. Here, the walls are dark and the floor littered by the end of an evening. Taco Mac accommodates large groups, children and babies — many of the latter seem to be seated upstairs.
The attraction, though, is beer. The SouthPark store has 140 beers on tap and upward of 220 beers in the bottle. In fact, the current sales promotion is the Taco Mac Brewniversity, which allows customers to work their way up the university degree and rank ladder by consuming a variety of beers (no more than six per night). Drink 325 different beers and be rewarded with a Ph.D. Drink 1,000 and you're a Chancellor. For those counting, that's a minimum of 168 visits.
Menu items, not the name of the business, betray the owners' origins in Buffalo, N.Y. The Taco name is misleading. Tacos and the other southwestern-styled fare is not what excel here. What shines are the dishes derived from Buffalo. The delightful "beef on weck" sandwich, a product of western New York and their German immigrants, is a Kaiser-styled bun (kummelweck) encrusted with kosher salt and caraway seeds, filled with thinly sliced roast beef and horseradish. This sandwich is only available on Wednesdays.
The wings are even better, of course. The six-level heat selection for the wings ranges from mild to death (the medium is fairly mild) and the wings are first-rate and served in the traditional red plastic basket lined with paper. But overall, few menu items rise above ubiquity. But none fall flat — except the pasta salad and the taco. The five half-pound burgers are perfunctory. Equally nonaggressive is the iceberg wedge salad. The ginger apple crumble was as sweet as expected. On a positive note, though, the menu denotes healthier choices, those items under 600 calories which include the beef on weck, a smoked turkey and cheese panini, and a southwest tortilla wrap with chicken and black beans. Of course, this implies that those menu items not notated have more than 600 calories.
Service is on the run — the place is busy and so are the servers and the food runners. Table numbers must not be defined on the order slips since I saw runners looking for placement on one occasion.
But the prices are recession-friendly and priced at varying increments. Burgers, for example, range from $7.99 to $8.69 — not $8.99. In other words, items are not rounded to the 99-cent or 49-cent convention. Thus, the perception is of value, and since dishes fill more than stir, beer is the main event.