Oakland's Homeroom Says Welcome Back, Cheddar 

Mac 'n' cheese restaurant gives new meaning to "old school."


What would happen if the kids — led by the troublemakers, the juvenile delinquents — took over the school cafeteria? Eat at Homeroom to find out.

You'll very likely have to wait your turn, standing outside for a potentially long while before being seated at either a private table or the shared "community table." Inside, waiting another considerable while for your order, you are assailed by a relentless din as every squeak and scrape and syllable is amplified head-splittingly by hard surfaces and coyly cracked concrete floors, as if clamor was part of the design. Those who throng here, 99 percent of whom look 27, neither shun nor merely tolerate this roar but raise it, grinning wildly and self-congratulatorily like members of a secret club. They clearly crave the noise, its love-it-or-leave-it cruelty, as much as they crave mac 'n' cheese.

Served creamy or, for fifty cents extra, crunchily panko-baked, it comes made-to-order in hefty bowls and ten different styles, spiked with smoky marash pepper and Cypress Grove chevre and sharp white Vermont cheddar and Niman Ranch bacon and runny fried eggs. Crowned with a jaunty lime slice, the runaway bestseller is teasingly spicy Mexican Mac, protein-packed with Monterey jack and Niman Ranch chorizo. A standout sunrise-gold vegan mac includes no cheese, not even plant-based cheese, but owes its tricky luxury to tofu, yeast, soymilk, and soy sauce.

"We both had a huge passion for food, but we had limited experience and we didn't have a ton of money," said Erin Wade, who opened Homeroom last month with Berkeley food blogger and fellow cook Allison Arevalo. "We wanted to do something approachable, and that meant focusing on only one thing. Mac 'n' cheese is a big favorite for both of us. We couldn't figure out why no one was doing anything with mac 'n' cheese the way they do with pizza."

After many months spent testing recipes (a gruyère/beer/caramelized-onion version looked great on paper but wasn't) and a scuffle with McDonald's over their original name choice, Little Mac, the pair opened in an airy corner spot outfitted with a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard and those high, hinged windows that your teacher used to open with hooked sticks. Library catalog cards and patrons' school photos — passé glasses, awful hair — dot the walls. Paper airplanes are everywhere. Under the inscription "A IS FOR APPLE, B IS FOR BEER, C IS FOR CHEESE," Homeroom's wide-open kitchen — where a hundred pounds of ridged Ronzoni elbows are boiled every day — evokes an arts-and-crafts class.

But the schooliest thing about Homeroom is its menu. What would kids make for kids? Rich mac 'n' cheese. With house-baked brownies, peanut-butter pie, and chewy, salty, dreamily dark ersatz Oreo cookies for dessert. And (here come those juvenile delinquents) beer.

Five local brews on tap include Oakland Brewing Company's Saut du Lapin Belgian Pale and San Leandro's Drake's Blonde. The Blonde meets limeade for a fizzy shandy, served in a Bell jar dubbed "The Professor." North Coast Brewing's Old Rasputin Stout meets vanilla ice cream in foamy beer floats. Beer and wine pairings accompany each mac 'n' cheese — the results of serious research, Arevalo said. Thus, Mendocino County's Handley Cellars Riesling is the suggested companion to Trailer Mac, an addictive mélange of elbows, Cheddar, Niman Ranch hot dogs, and potato chips.

The Spicy Mac employs jalapeño, marash, and serrano peppers, along with Petaluma-made Spring Hill Firehouse Jack. A fun take on a Roman classic, the Exchange Student is made with imported Italian pecorino and freshly ground black peppercorns whose spunkiness reminds you that black pepper is a flavor, too.

And that's the point here: Mac-as-mashup between simple and sly, childhood and adulthood, cheap and chic. Riding the nostalgic-food wave in a hipster canoe, this is comfort food served in what only the brave would dare call discomfort: a deafening, claustrophobic, crowded crucible. (The uncool can get mac to go.) At Homeroom, diners get to roar for two reasons: because they're re-experiencing childhood and because they're drunk.

Thomas Jefferson allegedly ate mac 'n' cheese at Monticello. What makes American comfort food comforting is its monotony — that mercifully uninflected drone of starch and fat that we can eat without being required to think, that we can eat and eat and eat without needing to handle knives or really chew. That's how we do it here, and we're a superpower. Mac 'n' cheese is how pasta might always be served if it had been invented by Americans: Plain, easy, and cheap. The same amount of pasta, cheese, and sauce in a Homeroom bowl would cost twice as much at your average Italian bistro.

Homeroom's two cutely obligatory eat-your-veggies side dishes are chilled roasted carrots and steamed broccoli — a perfect break from that carb overload, no matter how much you love your starch and fat — served with garlicky house-made ranch dressing. As of this writing, Wade and Arevalo were about to expand their menu with appetizers and bar snacks.

Friendly and clearly caring, Homeroom's servers do their best, but when it's really crowded here they look a little overwhelmed, like hall monitors just after the lunch bell. "We wanted to play off the nostalgic feeling," Arevalo said. "When you're in your homeroom at school, you're laughing with your friends and passing notes, and it's a great time of life. It really just makes you smile."

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