My first review of Cafe Madrid appeared in 1997. Back then, it was located in the Black Diamond Center on 3900 South and owned by Encina Arias and her husband, Paul Peterson. Today, Cafe Madrid is still a family operation, headed by Gabrielle and Todd McAfee, but is no longer located on 3900 South. During nearly a year of construction and the demolition of the old Pancho Villa restaurant, a new Cafe Madrid blossomed on Highland Drive. It certainly is bigger, but is it better?
To be honest, I was sort of mourning the loss of the original Cafe Madrid and not really looking forward to the new one. I loved the intimacy of the old space and had fond memories of many excellent meals there. Approaching the new restaurant for the first time, however, all I could say is “wow!” It’s gorgeous.
A beautiful garden and fountain greets customers as they stroll to the entrance of the restaurant from the parking lot. The exterior features Mediterranean-style archways, iron gates, doors and lamplights as well as lots of quality stonework.
Inside, Cafe Madrid sports one of the best-looking foyers I’ve seen. Guests aren’t greeted at a podium; rather, a host or hostess (often Gabrielle or Todd) meets customers at a big, wooden antique table that functions as the check-in desk.
As I said, I’d been concerned about the lack of intimacy in this much larger version of Cafe Madrid: There are three distinct dining rooms, plus an outdoor patio. However, dividing the restaurant into those separate areas creates intimate spaces in which to dine. Simply put, the new Cafe Madrid is a knockout to look at, enhanced by lovely artwork from Gabrielle’s painter brother, J.C. Pino, who also works at the restaurant, making sure every guest is pampered to the hilt. I’ve never met a restaurant worker who is more warm, generous and welcoming than J.C., who likes to advise customers to “get messy!” when they eat.
While the look of Cafe Madrid is new, the menu hasn’t changed a lot. It’s an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” sort of situation. And so, there are traditional hot and cold tapas, as well as entree-size plates (platos principales) and an excellent wine list with a wide-ranging selection of Spanish wines, sherry and Sangria.
Sometimes I like to skip the entrees at Cafe Madrid altogether and compose a meal made of tapas. But first, I suggest starting with cocido de garbanzos—a creamy chickpea soup studded with imported Spanish chorizo ($7.50). My favorite cold appetizer (tapas frias) is tosta de popiet de bonito, which is toasted baguette slices topped with flaked tuna, roasted piquillo peppers and red onion, finished with tomato and extra-virgin olive oil ($9.50). During meals at Cafe Madrid, don’t be surprised if J.C. or one of the other stellar servers does a little coaching. “The flavors need to join together and make love,” he says, suggesting that we try dipping chunks of delicious tortilla Española into the heady tomato & roasted-pepper broth that my steamed black mussels ($11.50) are bathed in. And, one more time, he reminds us to “get messy.”
Dining during summer on the walled-in patio at Cafe Madrid can be magical, with Spanish music playing to help set the mood. (How could you not love eating with the Gipsy Kings or flamenco music accompanying you?) But think twice before you let on that it’s your birthday because if you do, you’ll soon be surrounded by servers teaching you a Spanish tradition. I don’t remember this from when I lived in Spain, but apparently a common birthday tradition is for someone (a server, in this case) to pour wine or Sangria from a bota directly into the birthday boy’s (or girl’s) mouth while counting to 12, which represents the 12 months of the year. Due to Utah’s liquor laws, they don’t employ wine in the ceremony at Cafe Madrid, but use a mixture of fruit juice and sparkling cider. My advice: Don’t close your mouth to swallow before the count to 12 is finished. Talk about getting messy!
With a glass of Bodegas Medrano Irazu Crianza from Rioja alongside, I savored every morsel of Cafe Madrid’s pierna de cordero guisada ($29), which is an entree of slow-roasted lamb shank with a rich, silky Port sauce. Entrees are served with a choice of baby red potatoes, chip-style fried potatoes dusted with paprika, or raisin-spiked rice. And speaking of rice, Cafe Madrid offers paella with 24-hour advance notice ($19 per person). I loved the crunchy, slightly charred rice (this is a good thing) in the seafood paella. In Spain, it’s considered good fortune to get some of the slightly burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of the paella pan.
There’s a range of appealing seafood options at Cafe Madrid, such as the aforementioned tuna and mussels, along with calamari ($11.50), bacon-wrapped shrimp ($11.50), octopus chunks cooked in paprika-seasoned olive oil ($11) and seafood-stuffed piquillo peppers ($12.50). But the one seafood dish you really don’t want to miss is melt-in-the-mouth sea bass cloaked in a creamy shrimp sauce with caramelized onions ($31). It’s also hard to resist fideuā ($16.50), which is vermicelli-type noodles in a saffron-scented seafood broth with peas, clams, mussels, shrimp and squid rings.
As if nearly quadrupling the capacity of Cafe Madrid isn’t enough, there are also plans afoot to turn a currently unused room near the kitchen into a takeout shop, selling Spanish-style snacks, coffee and more. According to J.C., it’ll be called Gaudi, an homage to Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.
Ultimately, what really defines a restaurant isn’t its size, décor or even cuisine. While they have all those bases covered, what makes Cafe Madrid special is the warmth and hospitality that radiates from the owners and servers. While I’ll always miss the original Cafe Madrid a little, Madrid 2.0 is an excellent restaurant that’s much roomier than version 1.0. It’s both bigger and better.
5244 S. Highland Drive