Mac and Cheese Outside the Box in Rittenhouse
Craving great mac and cheese that features gourmet upgrades? Head to Mac Mart for some ooey-gooey goodness that's a hit with all ages.
As a college student majoring in corporate communications five years ago, Marti Lieberman dreamed of being a buyer at the posh Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. Instead, she landed a sales position at the Bala Cynwyd Saks — and realized the corporate environment left her feeling shallow and uncomfortable. “I felt I wasn’t contributing,” said Lieberman, now 26.
One night over dinner with her mother and grandfather, Lieberman discussed her day-job dismay and tossed around options for switching careers. She knew food trucks were trending, and her personal macaroni and cheese recipe drew rave reviews from her Saks colleagues. For her second act, she though, why not combine the two?
Comfort Food, Elevated
After some careful planning — and a lot of family support — Lieberman opened Philly’s first and only mac and cheese truck, Mac Mart Truck, in January 2013. Lieberman and a small team (her sister and boyfriend) used social media to help earn a dedicated fan base for her simple-yet-unique, ooey-and-gooey formula.
Customers line up for her lovingly crafted comfort food that comes in a microwavable and reusable container and costs $9 per pound. Lieberman believes it’s the food’s simplicity that resonates with customers. “We’re not trying to be farm-to-table, we’re not adding blue cheese, foie gras, and truffle oil to our food works,” she said. “We’re giving them a bowl of delicious, fattening, hearty mac and cheese. It works for all palates.”
Favorite flavors include the “In-the-Buff,” original mac and cheese with buffalo chicken chunks topped with a crunchy buttermilk ranch potato chip-panko mixture, and “The Rittenhouse,” original mac and cheese topped with creamy garlic, sautéed spinach, artichoke dip, and the potato chip-panko combination. Her mac and cheese isn’t solely geared to the indulgent adult. Kids love the seven-cheese “Marts Mac,” topped with the potato-chip panko mixture (bacon or hot dog bites are available, too). You can also build your own bowl, using mix-ins like basil pesto chicken, caramelized onions, cornbread crunch, or jalapeno-infused oil.
A Bigger Pot
As it gained in popularity, “The Big Pink Truck” was all over town: Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, plus food truck festivals and private catering events.
For three years, as food truck owner, Lieberman lived by the mantra: “I will never open a restaurant.” She’d heard restaurant business horror stories and wasn’t interested. But after the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia courted her with a spot at the arena, managed by concession giant Aramark, “it made sense for us to go somewhere people didn’t have to chase us,” Lieberman said.
That meant going brick-and-mortar.
“It was a no-brainer way to say thank you to our customers by taking a risk and opening something that would guarantee they could always find this product if they wanted it,” she said.
But Lieberman didn’t accept the arena offer. To her, it was “essentially going back to what I did at Saks, which is the bigger guys upstairs controlling things,” she said. The team decided to move forward with opening a restaurant.
In mid-May, the mac and cheese eatery opened at 104 S. 18th St., near Rittenhouse Square. Mac Mart’s pink neon sign is a beacon for customers and a blazing reminder of the truck’s signature color. There’s talk of expansion, but for now, Lieberman is focused on giving people what they want: good food.
“It’s just easy and simple and it’s not trying too hard,” she said.
That’s something we can all warm up to.
Recipe: Jalapeno Popper Dip
Want some cheesy goodness at home? Marti’s sister Pam, who is part of the Mac Mart Team, shares this vegetarian, best-selling recipe.
1 pound jalapeno peppers, sliced into rounds
2 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened
4 cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup Ranch dressing (buttermilk or regular)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Deep fry the jalapenos. If you don’t have a deep fryer, you can sauté until light in color and soft to the touch, about 15 minutes. Save the oil, set peppers aside.
Combine cream cheese, garlic cloves, ranch dressing, salt, and pepper in a bowl, and mix thoroughly with a spoon.
Crush the jalapeno peppers and blend them into the cream cheese mixture.
Add reserved jalapeno oil to the mix to taste.
Photographs by Marisa McGovern.