Waaaaay back in 1997, I enjoyed my first dinner at Cafe Madrid.
I’ve returned many, many times over the years. The restaurant was located on 3900 South back then, and was owned by Encina Arias and her husband Paul Peterson. In 2002 Cafe Madrid was named Best Neighborhood Restaurant by Bon Appetit magazine. Near the end of 2004, Gabrielle and Todd McAfee purchased the restaurant from Arias and Peterson. Encina and Paul moved to Las Vegas where she works at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and he is Sommelier/Beverage Director at Bouchon French bistro.
Cafe Madrid relocated, as well, moving from the Millcreek neighborhood to its current Holladay home on Highland Drive. While the original restaurant was quaint, the current Cafe Madrid is a larger, beautiful, and well-appointed eatery festooned with sublime original art by J.C. Pino, Gabrielle’s immensely talented brother. As it’s been since its inception, Cafe Madrid is a family affair. Gabrielle and Todd’s daughter now runs the restaurant most of the time.
The kitchen isn’t focused on the latest trends or fads. The food at Cafe Madrid has a timeless quality and although it’s a Spanish restaurant, you won’t find any Ferran Adrià-style foams or tricks of molecular gastronomy. The food is honest and straightforward.
A classic tapa – gambas con bacon – is a terrific starter to share: tender, plump bacon-rolled shrimp sauteed and served in a tantalizing cream sauce. Piquillo peppers stuffed with white wine and oven roasted – pimientos del piquillo rellenos de pescado – is another tempting tapa. Perhaps my favorite hot tapa though (there’s also a selection of cold ones) is morcilla de arroz con cebolla caramelizada. That translates as a delicious, rich dish of grilled blood sausage with caramelized onions and piquillo pepper sauce.
When I was an adolescent, my family moved to Seville, Spain, where we lived for a few years. During the first week or so, we stayed at a family-owned pension – a sort of B&B where I fondly recall being served fideo, which is a short vermicelli-style noodle. At Cafe Madrid, they make a dish called fideguà – a melange of mussels, shrimps, calamari and clams with fideos in a Spanish saffron sauce. It’s wonderfully fragrant thanks to the saffron and it’s a dish that’s hearty enough to share. And, speaking of hearty, meat lovers will certainly enjoy pierna de cordero guisada en su jugo al oporto. To you and me, that’s a nearly falling-off-the-bone oven-roasted lamb shank served with a rich, glistening Port wine sauce.
Cafe Madrid has a full restaurant liquor license and so you can enjoy cocktails like the Lemon Drop Martini, Rob Roy, or Cosmopolitan, as well as choose from a good selection of wines, many of which come from Spain. A particularly enticing offering is Mesquida Mora Trispol – an interesting blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Callet and Syrah from Mallorca. It would be an excellent partner for that lamb shank I mentioned.
Adjacent to Cafe Madrid is Cafe Gaudi, where lunch choices range from tapas, salads and soups to gourmet sandwiches and entrees like lasagna and paella. It’s hard to beat the cured Serrano ham sandwich with Spanish chorizo and Manchego cheese, drizzled with olive oil on an artisan baguette. Or, enjoy the “Veggie Light” sandwich which features asparagus, red onion, grilled oyster mushrooms, piquillo peppers, tomato, lettuce, extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar on a bocce roll or ciabatta.
Through the years, the most consistent aspect of Cafe Madrid has been its warm hospitality. As I said, it’s a family-run affair, and one where every customer is treated as part of the extended Cafe Madrid family. It’s typical to see regular customers on a first-name basis with staff and servers, and when J.C. Pino is in the house, especially, a warm, loving vibe infects this enduring eatery. Now more than two decades old, Cafe Madrid seems as fresh and vibrant as it has ever been.