By Wynter Holden
When Aaron Pool opened the first Gadzooks Enchiladas & Soup location at Seventh Street and Osborn Road in early 2013, industry experts reportedly gave the fledgling restaurateur a 1 percent chance of success. Five years later, the 30-year-old entrepreneur unveiled the second location of his successful enchilada and soup joint in Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood, proving those early critics wrong.
The new location is clean, bright and modern. Stark white walls, chalkboard menus and etched concrete tables make for a trendy dining space, while the dog-friendly patio is a magnet on mild weather days. Gadzooks is the gastronomic equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure book, with thousands of combinations possible. It has the same DIY concept as Chipotle, but better executed. From gooey enchiladas baked in a wood-fired oven to cozy soups and pre-made margaritas, nearly everything on the menu is solid enough to warrant ordering it a second time.
Diners start with the choice of corn tortillas or a 50/50 corn-flour hybrid. Salad bowls and stuffed poblano peppers are also available if you’re counting carbs. At first glance, the seven-step process (eight, if you count adding sides) seems daunting. Yet even during the Sunday after-church lunch rush, the line runs as smoothly as a well-greased conveyor belt. Load up on one or two fillings including short rib, pork, potato, cornbread and shredded chicken. Then select sauces, cheeses and add-ons like salsa, coleslaw or a fried egg.
On my visit, we sampled some of the eatery’s most popular combinations, including “Christmas” enchiladas with red and green sauce, beef nachos and a half-and-half bowl of Gadzooks’ homemade soup. The latter, a combination of corn chowder and chicken tortilla soup, proves spicier than expected. Made with fresh-cut veggies and handfuls of shredded chicken in a subtle broth, the tortilla soup is comforting and controlled. Its verdant celery flavor would overpower the dish if it weren’t for the creaminess of the chowder – the spicy yang to the chicken tortilla’s yin. Rich and piquant (about a 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a raging inferno), the chowder adds sweetness and texture to elevate its tamer counterpart.
Enchiladas are a powerhouse of flavor, with bright, acidic tomatillo chicken contrasting spicy-sweet cornbread reminiscent of tamale masa. Another satisfying combo, savory green chile pork is grounded by the earthiness of smashed potatoes. Though I prefer the vibrancy of Gadzooks’ chile verde, enchilada purists will likely gravitate to the red half of the eatery’s Christmas combination. It’s so dark and rich that it could easily be turned into mole with the addition of chocolate. Topped with cheese and oven-baked until bubbly, this mix-and-match enchilada duo is a comfort dish you’ll want to tuck into.
Baked nachos topped with braised short rib and pickled onions go down easy with the house margarita, a tart, grapefruit-infused libation that’s heavy on the tequila. The beef is fork-tender and savory, with a slightly sweet undertone from the guajillo (one of three chiles used in the “holy trinity” of mole). Scratch-made corn chips are thick and sturdy, easily holding up against an onslaught of creamy Chihuahua cheese and guacamole.
While the Pools jokingly refer to tacos as “naked enchiladas,” their Festival Taco is clothed with plenty of homey fillings. Made with tomatillo chicken, cornbread and honey slaw in a 50/50 tortilla, this signature off-menu taco nabbed two first-place wins in the chicken category at Arizona Taco Festival. The shredded bird and serrano-studded bread are a harmonious duo, but it’s the crisp cabbage that makes this taco a winner. The creamy slaw snaps like a fresh green bean, with jalapeño ranch lending just enough heat to spark the tongue.
Gadzooks is a family affair. Younger brother Aaron was the brainchild. Eldest sibling Jared relocated from California to help with the new Arcadia location, middle child Drew contributed his Wren House beer and mom makes pumpkin cookies. Baked until just past doughy and packed with concentrated holiday pie flavor, this lone dessert is one of the best things on the menu. They’re pillow-soft, as thick and moist as muffin tops. It’s no wonder the Pool boys are hoping to help their madre open a bakery nearby.
I found only one downside to the Gadzooks experience: If you don’t like your dish, it’s probably your own fault. The broad range of customization options makes this fast-casual Mexican joint a go-to for picky eaters and families with children. So order a glass of tasty citrus sangria, build your own entrée, and try not to eat all of mom’s cookies before dinner.
Aaron Pool says he named Gadzooks for the exclamation of dismay a former roommate shouted upon realizing his restaurant leftovers had been pilfered from the fridge. It’s a contradictory namesake, considering most guests here finish every bite, leaving nothing to take home.