Conventional wisdom says to go to Mexican restaurants that are run by, well, Mexican people. But Mario Moussa, who runs Madonna's, on Smithfield Street Downtown, says you shouldn't count out the Bulgarians.
"Bulgarian food and Mexican food are similar, really," says the Bulgarian native, who moved here in the late '90s. "The national dish in Bulgaria is basically the same: beans. Bulgarians eat a lot of spicy food; a lot of Mexican food is spicy."
Moussa opened his first Mexican restaurant in Oakland, in 1999; he didn't have a background in food (he'd worked in academia back in Bulgaria), but he found the restaurant and got it as a turn-key business purchase. He moved the business Downtown in 2001 and sold the Oakland store.
For a decade, Madonna's occupied a hidden storefront on Fourth Avenue; last year, Moussa was pushed out of the space by the landlord. But he was lucky to find a new, much more visible spot at the corner of Smithfield and Forbes, across from Macy's.
Madonna's re-opened in early February, and longtime customers from the Fourth Avenue location have begun to trickle back in. Besides a tasty, inexpensive lunch consisting of variations on tacos and burritos, patrons are used to the friendly demeanor of Moussa and his staff. A contagious smile can, after all, be as much of a mid-day mood-booster as a good fish taco.