By Wynter Holden
Macayo’s swaps tropical toucans for tasteful décor while keeping its original flavor
Woody’s Macayo has a cool history, even if some of its claims to fame are disputed. The first Macayo was founded in 1952 by Woody and Victoria Johnson, owners of Valle del Sol and El Nido Mexican restaurants. Woody is rumored to have invented the chimichanga during an early experiment, though Tucson’s El Charro Café says it originated the dish. Macayo expanded over the years to include a dozen locations in the Southwest, later changing its name to Macayo’s Mexican Table in celebration of the Johnson family restaurant chain’s 70th anniversary. President Barack Obama even dined at the flagship Central Avenue Macayo’s with his family during a 2009 visit to Phoenix.
That Macayo’s closed in March of 2017, but its memory still lives on in the new Woody’s Macayo. The original Aztec-inspired building gave way to trendier digs in the former Fez space just north of Osborn Road. Gone are the thatched tiki awnings, bamboo and tropical rainforest bird statues, replaced by exposed ductwork, sleek wood tables and a vibrant wall mural by local artists Mata Ruda and Lucinda Yrene (aka La Morena). The earlier restaurant was reminiscent of Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. This one looks more like a trendy SoCal taco shop.
Macayo’s regulars can rest easy. The grub’s just as appetizing – and loaded with gooey cheeses – as it was 50 years ago. There are even a few modern takes on Mexican classics, such as the green corn tamale bites. Served with the eatery’s “famous” Baja sauce, the fried round balls of corn masa are infused with green chilies and cheese. While even the most prodigious Mexican chef’s green corn tamales can be a bit dry, this version is moist and velvety. They’re better than tamales in the same way that raw chocolate chip cookie dough trumps baked cookies. I can’t rave about them enough.
Another new standout is the Fried Egg Burger. It seems like a travesty to order a burger at a Mexican joint when there are burros, enchiladas and street tacos to be eaten. Trust me, this one’s worth a try. Made with certified Angus beef topped with oven-cooked short ribs, it’s a meaty monster. The short ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender, with spicy-sweet sauce that’s balanced by a dollop of savory chipotle cream. The menu specifies a fried egg, which is often cooked hard, but the chefs here wisely leave the yolk golden and runny. This is the kind of sturdy, rib-sticking burger that’s best left open-faced and eaten with a fork. Even the accompanying fries are crisped to perfection.
Woody’s infamous chimichanga, on the other hand, is left with its flour shell slightly soft rather than fried crunchy. The chewy wrapper envelops tender green chile chicken like a doughy baby blanket, providing just enough toothsome texture to complement soft refried beans. Try it Baja style with creamy sauce and jack cheese for a gooey, gluttonous dish. Macayo doesn’t skimp on the white meat chicken either, stuffing the fat burro until it is three inches thick.
The same tender bird is used in the Sonoran enchilada trio and tres rellenos platters. Both do the Mexican flag proud with red, white and green sauces respectively paired with cheese, chicken and beef or pork. The verdant flavor of green chile elevates the rellenos dish, and pork seems a better match for bright, piquant tomatillo salsa. The cheese-stuffed pepper is stringy and satisfying, like a giant mozzarella stick topped with chili-spiked tomato sauce. It’s hands down the best of the three, with the tender pollo a close second.
Unfortunately, dinner ended on a sour note. Though intriguing, the deconstructed margarita cheesecake is more of a pudding perched atop a bed of fine graham cracker crumbs. Served in a petite mason jar, it’s crowned with watery citrus curd that overwhelms the velvety filling and veers into uncomfortably sour territory. My advice to Macayo’s? Firm up the filling and use a delicate hand with the topping. In the meantime, I’ll stick with the churros (or even better, end with those amazing fried tamale bites).
Though much has changed since Woody and Victoria Johnson opened their first Macayo, the spirit of the original remains. Their sons Gary and Stephen, and daughter Sharisse, continue to run the company, “carrying on their father’s legacy and dreams.” Furniture and accessories from the Aztec building – including the iconic toucans and parachuting clown statues – sold via auction earlier this year, carrying off a portion of the chain’s extensive history. Luckily for Phoenicians who’ve been around a while, the chimichanga and hand-dipped cheese rellenos are still made fresh from original recipes. They’re also just as tasty as you remember.