• Where: T.Mac, 423 Market St.
• Phone: 423-267-8226
• Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday-Saturday
• Price range: Entrees in the $10 range; appetizers $6 to $10 but definitely sharing portions
Want to watch every sporting event going on in the entire world and have your pick of nearly 250 beers? Go to the newly redesigned Taco Mac - now T.Mac - downtown.
My lovely fiancee and I popped in for lunch last week to see what the 16-year-old restaurant has revamped after its brief huddle-up.
For full disclosure, the eatery's management invited me and a few other folks from local media last week for a "VIP treatment." They showcased their new fare and some really good beer. It was awesome. But I wanted to get an authentic experience for this review. I'm glad I did.
Turns out, when you aren't sitting next to the company's top chef and corporate captain, the place doesn't run at peak performance. But, in fairness, tripling the size of your restaurant and adding new staff and menu items isn't easy. There are kinks to work out, and I'm sure the nearly 40-year-old Atlanta-based restaurant chain will figure them out.
The menu has all the old favorites - wings, burgers and mammoth sandwiches. But it also includes some new eats.
To whet your appetite - or satiate a snack-size hunger - T.Mac offers four new flatbreads. Think pizza, but much lighter, with cracker-thin crust. You can go semitraditional and get the Italian Tomato & Cheese, a vegetarian option with bruchetta-like flavors. Or play it safe with the Pepperoni & Four Cheese for $8.25.
But get real, you didn't come here for Italian food. Step out of the box and try the Hickory Honey BBQ or Buffalo Chicken flatbreads. The BBQ has the right balance of sweet and tang, with a bite of red onion. And the Buffalo Chicken highlights T.Mac's original wing sauce, with blue cheese and pleasant bits of sliced celery.
The restaurant renewal also brought some promising additions to its arsenal of wing options.
First and foremost, the kitchen is turning out roasted wings. Yes, I know, it sounds crazy. But they are actually pretty dang good. Who doesn't like roasted chicken? They are the same price as their traditional fried wings, starting at $7.25 for six.
The restaurant has also added three new wing sauces: sweet chili sesame, cracked pepper cayenne and fiery chili citrus.
I am a man who likes to have his soul set on fire by hot wings. I've never met one I couldn't eat with euphoric, sweaty, face-burning joy.
T.Mac doesn't have those kinds of wings. But they do have great flavors that most reasonable people will enjoy.
The executive chef told me last week the team focused on making their new sauces complex and flavorful - not hellishly hot. He says every other wing joint is trying to melt faces. T.Mac wants to offer things that people can actually taste.
We kicked off lunch with a small order of T.Mac Signature Queso ($5.95). There's a large option for $2 more, but the small was perfect for two people.
The chips were hot and crisp, the salsa was fresh and had the right salt:tomato ratio. The queso was a delicious bowl of white, melted, jalapeno-laced cheese. Hard to go wrong there.
With the chips gone, we moved on to the main event. That's where things started to fall apart.
I was having a sandwich kind of day, so I ordered a chicken philly, with sweet potato fries ($8.95). My lady ordered a fried Buffalo chicken salad ($9.55).
My sandwich was great - piping hot and filled with generous grilled chicken chunks, melted Swiss-American cheese and caramelized onions and peppers. But the potato fries were room temp at best. I was a little bummed, but cold fries aren't the end of the world.
The philly was so big, in fact, I ate the other half the next day for lunch.
My bride-to-be, however, had it worse. She was already a few bites into her salad when she noticed some of the chicken was still pink in the center. She's a trouper. She ate the cooked tenders and left the rest.
Despite fumbles in the kitchen, our service was exceptional. We walked in the restaurant at 12:05 p.m. and were back in the car by 12:50 p.m.
The floor was busy when we arrived, so we sat at the bar, a wise choice if you have limited time for lunch.
The gentleman bartender was polite, knowledgeable and quick. He saved us some money by recommending we go with the smaller queso order. And he told us about all the Tennessee-based beers they have on tap.
When I pointed out the undercooked chicken, without missing a beat, he took the plate back to the kitchen - likely brought it to the fry cook's attention - and removed it from the bill without a second thought.
The new design (think: TV) is spacious (TV), open (TV) and modern (TV) but still very casual (TV). There are also a few televisions - everywhere.
The main floor features a good mix of four-tops, communal tables and nifty, round spinning booths that remind me of the tea cup ride at Disney.
It's an ideal place to meet friends and watch sports over a few brews.
I was in the restaurant business for nearly a decade. You have to cook chicken fully. That's a bush-league error.
But expanding a 16-year-old restaurant is no mean feat. The longtime staff have to learn just as much about the new floor plan and work flow as the new employees they are training. Things can get dicey.
And the key to survival in customer service - or any business - is recognizing bloopers, immediately fixing them and never doing them again.
T.Mac has some growing pains, but I'm not writing them out. I'll give them a few more weeks to get the kinks out and try them again. You should too.
Besides, SEC football is upon us - and you can't undercook beer.
Contact Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6481.