Given this lowbrow location, the high-cost main courses at Taqueros didn't sit well with certain diners -- who no doubt will squirm again at Madrid's $17 made-to-order paellas, whatever their quality. Perhaps anticipating this, the chef and his business partner, Juan Contreras, took pains to smarten up the interior. Miro-yellow walls match the Spanish painter's prints displayed on them, and benign carpeting now protects against the old cement din. Booths of multiple sizes squeeze in amongst white-clothed tables and leather-seated chairs. The bar is now a bar, not a storage heap, and Contreras works it like a pro, hand-squeezing limes and oranges into citrusy but not tart margaritas and dispensing smooth sangria that won't hurt your head. Sometimes an accordion player presses out a few tunes in the corner; more often, Spanish guitar music strums through the room's black-painted stratosphere.
Even more critical than cosmetic polishing and a good bar, the Spanish-speaking partners (Hernandez is from Spain, Contreras' parents are Mexican) have waitress Stacie Szegleti (regulars call her Stacie) on their side. Formerly the culinary tour guide through Taqueros' Mexican lexicon, she's now Hernandez's greatest fan and most sincere cheerleader. She's a multi-tasker -- delivering plates to one table is a show-and-tell opportunity for another. She knows the origins and the flavor profile of each wine, and every dish has a story, be it the olive-rich traditions of Seville or her own taste experiences. (For example, rabbit Sevilla, stewed with olives and potatoes in a lusty tomato sauce that somewhat resembles a sauce piquante, reminds Stacie of her "coon-ass grandmother.")
Having not done my research prior to my only trip to Madrid, Spain, I squandered precious Euros and stomach space on more tourist-trap meals than I can bear to remember. I learned my lesson; on my first trip to Madrid in Kenner, I let Stacie order. First came garlic butter and hot, crackly rolls made without yeast or sugar, the shrapnel of which challenges a standard server's crumber. Next she brought a plate heaped with tiny, buckshot olives and triangles of the firm, sharp Manchego cheese produced in the region that also spawned Don Quixote. I wouldn't skip this cheese course in the future, but I would move it to the rear of the meal, as the portion tempts you to overeat before the chef's own handiwork appears.
As at Laurentino's, heretofore Kenner's only Spanish restaurant, you may build a meal of tapas at Madrid or you may treat the tapas like appetizers, sampling just one or two before committing to a main course. Stacie chose the latter approach, not wanting us to miss that rabbit. She brought a bowl of whole button mushrooms reeking royally with garlic, fired with whole dried red peppers and swollen with olive oil and sherry, then a sliced tomato salad awash in reduced balsamic vinegar that will be lovely when tomatoes are in season again.
A hot pan of paella Valencia accompanied the rabbit, unnecessary for just two of us after so much food but enchanting nevertheless, its Arborio rice slightly al dente, well-oiled and dyed from tip to tail with saffron. Calamari, mussels and shrimp imparted a mellow seafaring flavor, while its sausage, chicken and pork loin leaned harder on the earth. The protein-packed paella Valencia hits all the bases, yet it also plays fairly safe. Venturesome diners might consider the blue-black paella with tender calamari and just-done shrimp instead; stained with squid ink, it's surprisingly less redolent of the sea but richer, more savory, lush and -- as Contreras pointed out -- "rich in omega-3 fatty acids"!
Subsequent meals have been equally fulfilling, if sometimes so rife with garlic that a self-imposed quarantine seemed appropriate afterwards. Garlic toasts come topped with garlic-marinated tomatoes and sliced prosciutto that's colored a deep, beautiful maroon and so salty you can see crystals forming on its surface. There are steamed mussels with garlic and chorizo, and a chilled, marinated seafood salad of super-fresh shrimp, mussels and calamari. A traditional Castilian garlic soup is actually quite mellow, a brothy elixir involving chicken stock, sliced garlic and sheer scrambled egg.
A single shot of espresso is a reasonable ending to such robust, Spanish meals, and Stacie pulls a good one. You'll have to fight to keep her from bringing you a dessert, though; fortunately there are worse lots than flan with candied orange syrup or chocolate flan with a cocoa-dark base. Madrid may not be a showpiece, but it has one thing going for it (besides Stacie) that many fancier restaurants lack: It smells delicious -- sweating garlic, browning meats, simmering tomato sauces, reducing wine. How is it that so many restaurateurs haven't figured out that this is what makes people hungry?