It’s all in the family at Compadres

October 5, 2018

Despite its name, Compadres in Middleton is not a restaurant run by a group of friends. It’s a restaurant run by family members, with eight of them working there.

Manuel Gonzalez, 28, who manages the restaurant, owns it with his parents. His father, Froylan, does a lot of the cooking and runs the kitchen, while his mother, Araceli, is responsible for the front of the house. Manuel’s sister, Dalia Gonzalez, is a server. Four other family members help cook and serve.

Some in his family came to Madison from Querétaro in central Mexico 25 years ago, Manuel Gonzalez said, but he moved here 20 years ago.

“My grandma, mom and dad are all big fans of food,” Gonzalez said. “When we went out for dinner, we didn’t find a food we liked in Madison. That’s what made us get into the restaurant business.”

The family lives on the East Side of Madison and opened the Middleton restaurant in June 2017. Business has been strong, Gonzalez said, and this was evidenced by my recent visit early on a Sunday evening, when almost every table in the comfortable, but unadorned dining room was full. “Everything has been more than we expected,” he said.

With a big, heavy menu, ordering isn’t easy. But don’t overlook the finely-tuned al pastor (marinated pork) and carnitas (slow-cooked shredded pork) tacos ($2.49 each). Both were perfectly seasoned and made the steak tacos seem dull in comparison. All the tacos came on a double corn tortilla with onion and cilantro.

The steak was cut into fine, almost ground-beef sized pieces, which one of my companions appreciated (“otherwise you’re chewing forever”), but another who ordered a steak burrito ($8.49), was put off by. The burrito was so big it stretched the length of his plate.

The menu features seven types of burritos, including a few wet ones, topped with either green sauce; cheese dip, grilled onions and bell peppers; or mole. I’m a big fan of smothered burritos, but my friend just went traditional. The number of filling choices was extensive, too, and included chicharrón (fried pork belly or pork rinds).

My chicken enchiladas with mole ($9.99) didn’t stand out, but the well-rounded plate held guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, fluffy rice and refried beans.

When you order guacamole ($8.49) at Compadres, you pay a premium to have an employee make it in front of you on a tray over a serving stand. She asked if we wanted all the usual ingredients, which, of course, we did.

She had them portioned out in separate bowls and mixed them together in a large stone molcajete bowl. But the finished product was lacking. It was light on garlic, salt, lime, cilantro, tomato — pretty much everything. We added some salt from the table, which helped.

Interestingly, the guacamole made in the kitchen that came with the enchiladas was seasoned just fine. “It’s a night and day difference,” said one of my companions.

The chips and red and green salsas delivered to our table when we were seated weren’t worth filling up on. There’s a huge variety in the flavor of corn chips and these were disappointing. Neither salsa really popped, either.

My friend who ordered the burrito asked for hot sauce, thinking he’d get a bottle of Cholula or similar commercial brand. Instead, he got a bowl of spicy, rich homemade salsa with a flavor that put the other two milder salsas to shame.

One of my two companions ordered a side of sour cream (75 cents) and it came in a cute little homemade tortilla shell, which was worth eating. It was also “night and day” compared to the chips.

My drink, a vibrant blended and generous mango margarita ($6.50), and my friend’s Paloma ($8), with grapefruit and tequila, were both made strong. My friend had been hoping for some carbonation, but his cocktail didn’t have any.

Compadres is located in the same development as one of the area’s most beautiful restaurant spaces, Takara 88, and the entrance is on the parking lot side, not the street side.

The Compadres dining room, meanwhile, has high ceilings, large windows, and nothing on the walls, although there’s a mural in the front, bar area where customers enter. Artful lights that hang down in the dining room serve as decor.

The attractive black embroidered shirts the servers wear also become a design element. Gonzalez said the shirts come from Oaxaca, Mexico, and he’s been seeing similar ones around Madison.

One companion was surprised to find a shower in the men’s room and wanted to know if the women’s room also had one. (It did.) The showers, it turns out, are left over from the space’s last use as a fitness business.

“That’s a first,” he said.

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