Number one in the entire country. Highest rated from about 90-million restaurant reviews. Topping Yelp’s 9th annual list of the top 100 restaurants in the United States for 2022 is “Cocina Madrigal, a “father-and-son-owned eatery serving Oaxaca fundido and beef birria enchiladas to lucky residents of Phoenix, Arizona (who’ve responded with more 5-star reviews than we can count).” Cocina Madrigal wasn’t on the list of restaurants we planned on visit during our annual visit to the Valley of the Sun, but how often is the opportunity presented to dine at THE top restaurant in the entire country. Besides, the menu promised Hatch green chile on several entrees and appetizers.
Yelp noted “Attracting a diverse crowd to downtown Phoenix, Chef Leo Madrigal’s restaurant is comfortable and warm but not overly fancy. His menu is full of flavors from Oaxaca and his Mexico City birthplace, with favorites that include a grilled-romaine salad and fall-apart beef birria enchiladas. Make sure you leave room for dessert, and order the warm Churros with Crème Anglaise and caramel sauce.” Yelp also indicated Cocina Madrigal is known for: “Making everything from scratch, from tacos and enchiladas to the fresh-as-can-be salsa.” A lot of restaurants make everything from scratch. We were determined to learn what the differentiator is that makes Cocina Madrigal number one in the country.
It certainly wasn’t the parking. We had to circle the very crowded parking lot three times before finding a spot in which to park. It might have been easier had other motorists been more courteous and parked within the lines. Parking on streets adjacent to the restaurant was equally tough. The nearest spot would have required a rather long walk. It surprised me that Yelpers (who often slam restaurants for the slightest perceived infraction) didn’t trash Cocina Madrigal for the parking situation. Maybe this restaurant is so good that walking to it just builds up your anticipation.
Naturally as soon as the wait staff espied The Dude, our debonair dachshund, they fawned all over him with enthusiastic oohs and aahs. We were guided to our table directly below an outdoor heater to quell the cool evening air (it was 57-degrees). Instead of the de rigueur wait schtick employed by chains, our interactions with the Cocina Madrigal wait staff were convivial and genuine. Tony, our genial server had worked on the construction of the megalithic Amazon complex west of Albuquerque and was quite familiar with the Duke City dining scene. He assured us we’d be impressed by Cocina Madrigal. His recommendations were spot-on.
We also met Chef Leo Madrigal himself. A man whose modesty belies an accomplished career, Chef Madrigal is still an active chef. He doesn’t don the chef’s toque because he conceptualized the restaurant’s menu; he actually prepare meals. Originally from Mexico, Chef Madrigal has been building kitchens and menus across the Valley of the Sun for three decades. His curriculum vitae includes leading some of the area’s most revered Mexican restaurants. Befitting the modesty of the man is the modesty of the restaurant. There’s no flash and panache here, no brightly illuminated signage. The restaurant is in a converted home in a part of town that’s mostly residential.
The #1 Restaurant in the United States designation by Yelp isn’t Cocina Madrigal’s sole mention on America’s leading crowd-sourced review site. In 2020, Cocina Madrigal was number five on Yelp’s annual list. Trip Advisor lists the restaurant among the top ten places to eat in Phoenix while Travel & Leisure lists it as one of the best places in America for tacos. Awards and accolades are numerous. So was the crowd on the night of our inaugural visit. Every vehicle in the tightly packed parking lot must have ferried over four or five diners. We were among the few couples dining at Cafe Madrigal.
Cocina Madrigal’s menu didn’t really hold many surprises. In fact, it listed many of the “usual suspects” at Mexican restaurants: tacos, burritos, enchiladas and the like. The one blow-me-away surprise was in seeing several items prepared with Hatch green chile. Burgers and sandwiches are available for diners who don’t like Mexican food. Cocina Madrigal will prepare any dish to your specified degree of heat. For my Kim that means no heat whatsoever. A recent prescription change has taken away any tolerance of heat she had acquired over the years. In that respect, we’re diametrical opposites.
Our inaugural appetizer was Oaxaca Fundido (Oaxaca cheese melted over longoniza, roasted jalapeños, mushrooms, caramelized onions and epazote served with fresh, housemade corn tortillas) which Tony neutered for my Kim by removing the roasted jalapeños. It was still too piquant for my brittle bride which meant I could ask Tony to bring on the Hatch green chile. With or without the piquant pride of New Mexico, the Oaxaca Fundido was superb, a perfect blend of creaminess and sweet and savory notes. Note to self: fresh mushrooms should always be part of queso fundido. The longoniza may have been what my Kim found “too hot” though it probably had no more heat than any chorizo.
Interestingly she didn’t find the grilled elote–available on the cob or scraped onto a bowl–especially piquant even though a chipotle aioli is one of the two primary ingredients (the other is cotija cheese). We’ve had better grilled elote in the Land of Elotechantment, but this was quite good. Having been raised on a farm in which we grew our own corn for roasting on an horn for chicos, I was weaned on elites and have rarely encountered one that didn’t make me happy.
Tony was effusive about Cocina Madrigal’s enchiladas. Of the four enchiladas on the menu–beef birria, chicken, wild mushroom and barbacoa green chile–he recommended the wild mushroom and barbacoa green chile enchiladas with the most alacrity. The wild mushroom enchiladas (a mix of three wild mushrooms, jack cheese, ancho mole cream sauce avocado relish and sour cream sauce), he echoed would “blow you away.” They definitely did that. Talk about an umami bomb. Talk about flavors that go so well together. The barbacoa green chile enchiladas (slow-roasted beef, jack cheese, New Mexico Hatch green chile sauce) were quite excellent in their own right, but if New Mexican restaurants don’t start serving wild mushroom enchiladas, we might move to Arizona. Seriously, Cocina Madrigal may have achieved number one solely on the basis of their enchiladas.
Cocina Madrigal offers a “Madrigal Burrito” constructed with “Hatch green chile sauce, rojo beans, jack cheese, salsa fresca and lettuce served with rice and beans.” You could almost see Tony’s face deflate as my Kim asked for omission of the rojo beans, salsa fresca, lettuce and especially the Hatch green chile sauce. Such is the scourge of a prescription change that has robbed her of the enjoyment of New Mexico’s sacrosanct official state vegetable. Graciously Tony offered a burrito with steak (marinated in pomegranate) with jack cheese. At first trepidatious about steak marinated in pomegranate, I reminded her that chile rellenos en nogada are made with pomegranates and she loves those. She loved the steak burrito, too. The steak was unbelievably tender and moist. The pomegranate marinade didn’t render the steak overly sweet. Instead it imparted a balanced savory and sweet flavor combination that was just terrific.
Cocina Madrigal offers three desserts. My choice would have been the chocolate chipotle pie, but it’s not something my Kim could enjoy. We opted instead for the churros (Bavarian cream filled with Creme Anglaise and caramel sauce). These are top tier churros with flavor notes characteristic of most churros, but with textural contrasts that made them special. So was the Creme Anglaise, a notable difference from the chocolate sauce normally served with churros.
When I told my Kim about Cocina Madrigal having been named Yelp’s best restaurant for 2022, she reminded me it’s been quite an year for the Madrigal clan. She clarified that in January, the movie Encanto introduced the world to the Madrigal family and their unique brand of enchantment. Chef Leo Madrigal and his family are creating their own brand of enchantment in South Phoenix. It’s not America’s best restaurant in our book, but it’s one we’ll visit again.
4044 S 16th Street
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LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2022
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Oaxaca Fundido, Elote, Steak Burrito, Wild Mushroom Enchiladas, Barbacoa Green Chile Enchiladas, Churros