I know it’s cliche to say, but good Mexican really is hard to find in New York. I’m not saying there aren’t good dishes or a few good restaurants scattered about the boroughs. There are… a few, but it’s hard to find a joint that can master a proper margarita, tamale, and mole. That’s a whole other level and plenty of places don’t even offer tamales or a cactus salad (I love a good ensalada de nopalitos). Instead, they stick to what I call “mass Mexican,” like burritos, quesadillas and tacos. Then, there’s the other side of the spectrum, like Tehuitzingo Mexican Deli. This grungy, Hell’s Kitchen spot makes hyper authentic sopes topped with goat’s meat (barbacoa), huitlacoche quesadilas and killer tacos el pastor. But they don’t have a liquor license or much in the way of seating and zero in the way of decor. You’ll want to eat and run.
Aside from Empellon Cocina, there are few places you want to linger on a Saturday night and even fewer that wheel and deal in that unique combination of modern Mexican that still feels authentic. Which is why I was excited to learn about the opening of El Toro Blanco. Mind you, I was skeptical of a Mexican restaurant from chef Josh Capon and owner John McDonald, neither of whom are Mexican. Capon and McDonald have proven that they can more than hold their own on both the food and scene front with their always buzzing, seafood-bent Lure and casual pub grub Burger & Barrel. But Mexican? Really? At El Toro Blanco, they’ve teamed up with chef Scott Linquist, who was the corporate chef at Dos Caminos, and is now a partner and chef at Mucho Ultima in Los Angeles, to collaborate on the menu at this Village newcomer. Oh, and she’s a looker. This sexy spot has uber dim lighting, dark wood accents, cushy banquettes, a few cacti scattered about, and black and red Mexican tiles along the walls. The space was formerly occupied by Scuderia, located on the West side of Sixth Avenue (just north of Houston), a spot that’s been cursed over the years with musical restaurants and plenty of untimely closings. But from the looks of it, El Toro Blanco will stick around for awhile.
What to Order…
The dining room was packed this past Saturday night and you can tell it’s “The” place to be right now, so grab a cocktail at the upfront bar and people watch for a bit. I usually head straight to the tequila menu, when there is one, and the one at El Toro Blanco is impressive, lined with hard-to-find tequilas and a few of my favorites, like Clase Azul Reposado or El Tesoro Paradiso. Still, the cocktails sounded way too interesting to pass over, so we didn’t. Instead, we tried a traditional, salt-rimmed margarita (solid) and a “cousin of the margarita” dubbed the Chili-Rubbed Mango (excellent), a blend of tequila, mango, cilantro, agave and an ample dose of habanero to balance out the sweetness. But my favorite was another “cousin” named the Jicama Fig, a beautifully balanced drink with a combination of jicama, mint, lime, fig and tequila, of course, that I could all too easily make a habit of. Then came freshly made tortilla chips, still warm from the fryer, for dipping in guacamole (we ordered ours medium spicy) along with a killer, Green Chile Queso Fundido, Mexico’s version of fondue, made with green chiles, Oaxaca and queso fresco. It’s the kind of dreamy, gooey fondue that gives France a run for its money, and that, as my brother so eloquently put it, “you’ll want to stick your face in.” El Toro Blanco’s rendition comes topped with spicy crumbles of chorizo, lending it depth, and sided by soft flour tortillas in case you prefer to spread it civilly on something instead of sticking your face in it. I was worried I would need be rolled home (not a great start to a Saturday night), but we lightened things up with two orders of Ceviche, one with Lobster and another with Snapper. The Baja-Style Snapper was a pretty typical ceviche, tossed with lime, tomato, cilantro, jalapeno and avocado, best spooned onto a salty chip. The real find here is the Lobster Ceviche, an original melange, composed of shredded jicama, coconut, bits of mango, mint and a kick of habanero to make it a tad more interesting.
To Die For Tamales…
Tamale Elote Verde
The tacos are the weakest link on the menu. While I was underwhelmed by the Taco stuffed with Tinga De Pollo, roast pulled chicken, bathed in a spicy tomato broth that registered more musty than anything else, I really liked the less traditional, Octopus Tacos, layered with finely charred octopus, a crunch of radish and citrus slaw, cilantro,and a peppy jalapeno aioli. The biggest hit by far was the Carne Tampiquena, which is a little like the greatest hits of Mexican cooking (in my eyes anyway) all on one plate. There’s a terrifically tasty skirt steak paired with a cheese enchilada that gets drizzled with salsa verde, chimichurri sauce, and accompanied by a cactus salad. Ooh, and the insanely fresh and delicious Tamale Elote Verde, laced with fresh corn kernels and roasted poblanos, cooked in a corn husk, and capped off with queso fresco and green chile salsa — the ultimate comfort food. This may be modern Mexican, but it’s hard to find a great tamale and El Toro Blanco has nailed it. We also got a side of Sweet Plaintains doused in mole and crema, and another of some of the best refried pinto beans I’ve had to date (and I just got back from Mexico). The menu is thankfully without overstuffed burritos, nachos and the like. For dessert, we shared Churros with two dipping sauces, Chocolate and Dulce De Leche, a luscious, homemade Chocolate-Chile Sorbet, and Coconut Tapioca, which was the winner at the table. It’s an exotic dish, composed of coconut milk, chewy tapioca pearls, and mango, all topped with a refreshing coconut and mango sorbet. I’ve been thinking of that tamale since Saturday and already have reservations to go back El Toro Blanco. Afterall, it ain’t easy to find food that’s on par with the scene and vice versa. Enough said.