Toca Madera

Nikki BuchananDecember 2019
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Photography by Blake Bonillas

Dazzling décor aside, this modern Mexican import in Scottsdale gives our critic the blahs – and a minor case of generational dissonance.

No doubt about it: Toca Madera, the modern Mexican restaurant that recently opened near Ocean 44 in the ever-expanding luxury wing at Scottsdale Fashion Square, is drop-dead gorgeous, arguably the most visually stunning restaurant in Scottsdale – and that’s saying something, considering its neighbors are Ocean 44 and Maple & Ash, no slouches in the extravagant décor department.

So breathtaking is the space, it’s pretty hard not to look like a slack-jawed tourist when you walk through TM’s massive double doors and gaze up at its undulating wood ceiling and live ficus trees, slowly taking in the bustling open kitchen, ceviche bar and dimly lit Día de Los Muertos-themed lounge at the back, all designed to elicit the “Wow!” that may involuntarily fall from your lips.

Lime tart at Toca Madera
Lime tart at Toca Madera

Owned by The Madera Group, the people who opened the original Toca Madera in West Hollywood in 2015 and the fast-casual Tocaya Organica across the mall’s driveway, Toca Madera (which means “knock on wood”) is tailor-made for easily bored millennials who demand entertainment for every occasion. (Hey, it’s only Tuesday night once a week, right?) Live DJs in the lounge spin catchy – but deafening! – chillwave tracks while a guy walks around on stilts. Meanwhile, a costumed young woman stands in the middle of the dining room swallowing fire from the end of a sword. It all makes me wish I was 10 years old again.

Now if only the high-end, reimagined Mexican food – much of it organic, vegetarian and vegan – were half as interesting as the digs and shenanigans. But with few exceptions, it’s overpriced, under-seasoned and mediocre, a point which seems to go unnoticed by the gaga bread-and-circuses crowd who keep the place buzzing all night. Menu prices, by the way, aren’t listed on the website. I guess if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

Queso fundido
Queso fundido
fried calamari
fried calamari

It’s possible to save a few bucks by eating happy hour starters in the lounge, which my friends and I do a few times, trying crispy, chipotle-seasoned, wild-caught calamari with jalapeño-spicy, citrus-avocado sauce (the best of the happy hour lot) and signature Manchego truffle fries: slippery, squiggly twists that aren’t readily identifiable as potatoes (just fried, greasy somethings) served with diablo crema (akin to seriously spicy Thousand Island, and tasty for that). Flamboyant cocktails, served in chic glassware and occasionally lit on fire, make everything a little better, including queso fundido, a goopy, molten mixture of organic Chihuahuan cheese studded with roasted pasilla chiles, mushrooms, onions and soyrizo (a veggie-based version of chorizo). Sided with spongy house-made flour tortillas, it’s decent, but I’ve had better. Ceviche blanco, a soupy mix of wild-caught Chilean sea bass with tomato, lime, red onion, cilantro and avocado, is fresh-tasting but equally uncompelling. Granted, Kumamoto oysters on the half shell, topped with lime caviar, fresno peppers and tomatillo cocktail sauce, sound wonderful, but their delicate flavor is drowned out by stronger flavors. In sum, everything happy hour lands somewhere between pretty good and strictly OK.

The situation improves, incrementally, when we move to the dinner menu. Guacamole, studded with pomegranate seeds that lend tart, juicy pop, is smooth-textured and agreeably spicy. Too bad it’s offered with inexplicably bland, brittle plantain chips, not the sturdy, starchy models served everywhere else. Sashimi Mexicano, however, is not only the prettiest dish of my three visits but also one of the best, a mandala of rosy pink, velvet-textured wild-caught ahi, wrapped like a rose and placed at the center of a plate surrounded by avocado triangles and discs of Japanese cucumber and radish, dotted with pomegranate seeds – everything afloat in more tangy than torrid leche de tigre, a citrusy marinade.

tiger shrimp
tiger shrimp
Churro with ice cream
Churro with ice cream

I’m not into gimmicks, so the hot rock cooking shtick (resurrected as a “hot dining trend” for the second or third time now) doesn’t really impress me, especially when the meat – carne asada – is such a pale imitation of the simple but robust Sonoran classic famed for its smoke and char. Yes, the meat chars on the rock, but a hot rock is not a smoky grill. A few slivers of vegetables (onions, bell peppers and the like) turn the dish into something closer to fajitas: gringo food served with bland, mushy cilantro-corn white rice and blah-boring black beans. American Wagyu, cooked in the same way, is worlds better – fatty, tender, flavorful – sided with a dark, garlicky, wine-splashed mojo I could eat with a spoon. Definitely worth the splurge.

Traditional mole de olla – organic chicken breast, slow-baked with rich, deep-flavored Oaxacan-style mole negro – is thick, earthy and a little sweet, topped with pickled onion and toasted sesame seeds. It’s good, but I prefer whole chicken pieces to shredded white-meat chicken.

In the never-again category: a beer-battered Chilean sea bass taco so greasy I can’t even eat it, and dry-as-a-bone chicken enchiladas topped with a smidgen of melted Oaxacan cheese and given a stingy swish of tomatillo sauce. They’re not authentic Mexican and they’re not comforting AZ-Mex, just some dreary, inedible hybrid designed to be healthy.

Warm, cinnamon-sugar dusted churros, slathered with dulce de leche ice cream to make sandwiches, offer the best reason I can think of to visit this great-looking but ultimately feckless place. But if truth be told, there’s absolutely nothing to lure me back – not even a space this beautiful – because I go out to eat to actually eat, and food is not Toca Madera’s strong suit. But this is the new normal: a bling-y, astronomically expensive scene where the food is secondary. It’s enough to make me weep, and yeah, I know: OK, Boomer.

the patio at Toca Madera
the patio at Toca Madera
Toca Madera

Cuisine: Modern Mexican
Contact: 4736 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-478-0157, tocamadera.com
Hours: Su, Tu-Th 4 p.m.-1 a.m., F-Sa 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Highlights: Calamari frito ($18, $10 HH); sashimi Mexicano ($22); American Wagyu cooked on rock ($38); guacamole ($13); churro ice cream sandwich ($8)

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