El Toro wins critic’s “Olé!”

El Toro

(El Toro and Salsarita’s, Voice-Tribune, June 7, 2006)

El Toro, the brave bull, sounds like it ought to be the name for a place that specializes in beef, and now that I think of it, the beef dishes at El Toro restaurant are, well, bueno. But it’s the mariscos – the seafood and fish – that really rattle my marimbas at this popular new East End eatery.

My Mexican-American foodie friend Javier put me on El Toro’s trail the other day with an excited E-mail message. “I am from Mexico … I think honestly that El Toro is the best [Mexican] restaurant in the city of Louisville right now. The service was excellent and the food was prepared very well. It is still somewhat Tex-Mex which bothers me but somehow they manage to make you forget that fact.”

This was high praise, coming from a guy who’s done time in the restaurant business himself. So I hastened to check it out, and came away convinced. If not the No. 1 Mexican restaurant in the metro – competition for that title is keen – it certainly exceeds expectations, and earns my recommendation for food, service and environment.

From the outside, this good-sized storefront in Hunnington Place shopping center at Hurstbourne looks a bit bland as suburban facades usually do. But merry music almost always emanates from a protected patio, where you can dine alfresco without having to worry about dodging raindrops.

Indoors, the dining space is divided into intimate sections by head-high room dividers. Nicely textured orange-sherbet paint over turquoise walls creates a festive Mexican feel, complete with good quality ceramic vases, terra cotta jars and impressive replicas of pre-Columbian figurines. Hospitable Latino servers speak very good English and wear headsets, creating the odd impression that they’re multi-tasking. It is almost as if they were taking phone calls while they jot down your order. That is only an illusion, though. They’re friendly and efficient, and will have a good-size basket of fresh, crisp tortilla chips and bright-red, sweat-provoking spicy salsa on your table before you can say “Buenos Dias.”

Watch those chips, though. They’re so addictive that you can hardly help polishing them off in a hurry. If you do, you’re going to find it hard to make room for your dinner and that would be a shame.

We washed down the chips with icy mugs of Carta Blanca beer, a full-bodied Mexican lager, then ordered an appetizer sampler (Platillo Combinado, $6.50) to buy enough time to study an extensive menu of Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. Page after page it runs, with appetizers, soups, salads, fajitas and Mexican favorites, plus a vegetarian section with a good choice of courses ranging in price from $5.95 (for cheese quesadillas) to $6.95 (for vegetarian fajitas). We focused in on the “Especialidades” (“Specialties”), a list of authentic Mexican main dishes from $7.25 (for a pair of tamales wrapped in corn husks) to $13.50 (for Camarones el Toro, a house specialty of jumbo shrimp in a hot-and-spicy cream sauce flavored with smoky chipotle peppers).

The appetizer plate consisted of a hearty combo of munchies that could almost have made a light meal in itself. Two “mini-tacos” weren’t all that mini. Palm-sized and crunchy, fresh corn tortillas are loaded with tender ground beef, with a spicy flavor that hinted at cinnamon and cloves, and topped with grated white cheese; four mini-flautas, lipstick-sized rolls of deep-fried tortilla stuffed with spicy shredded chicken and topped with sour cream; camuch, a Southwestern treat I believe to be new to Louisville, and a half-dozen crisp tortilla chips, each topped with a spoonful of refried beans, a dollop of guacamole and a dab of melted cheese. It was garnished with chopped lettuce, fresh tomatoes and a single jumbo shrimp atop a scoop of guacamole.

Dinner came in bountiful portions, too, served on beautiful, brightly colored oval stoneware plates. The Camarones a la Plancha (“planked shrimp,” $9.95), consisted of six or seven very large shrimp that had been butterflied, flavored with garlicky oil, and broiled until they sizzled. The shrimp are artfully displayed atop a layer of fine Mexican rice, garnished with fresh romaine lettuce and tomatoes, and served with a small bowl of charro beans on the side, tender pink pintos in a savory soup. The shrimp were first-rate, once I discerned that the mysterious crunch was due to their being unshelled on their bottoms. D’oh!

Another seafood choice, Mojarra Frita ($8.95), offered an impressive presentation: A whole tilapia fish, coated with a spicy but not fiery flavor rub and deep-fried whole. The result is a crispy, spicy skin and steaming, tender white flesh within. A fish-eater’s treat served head, tail, fins and all, on the bones. It’s not for the uninitiated, but was very well done.

All those chips at the start left no room for dessert. But we departed full and happy, feeling that we’d had a very good deal with our dinner for two – including two rounds of Carta Blancas – for $39.44 plus an $8.56 tip.

El Toro Mexican Restaurant
1810 Hurstbourne Parkway
(502) 491-7272


Salsarita’s shines

Speaking of Mexican, I’ve found myself warming up to the offerings at Salsarita’s. Another entry in the booming “fresh burrito” fast-food category, where competitors such as Qdoba, Moe’s and the short-lived Baja Fresh seek to outdo each other. All include oversize burritos and other Americanized Mexican dishes made to order with fresh ingredients as you pass through a cafeteria-style line to pick up your lunch.

Salsarita’s spacious and colorful venue fills part of a new building in Woodlawn Park, within hailing distance of Kroger’s and just a hamburger’s throw from McDonald’s.

For my money, I’d rather have a burrito than a burger, and Salsarita’s will do. A lot of people seem to agree, as I don’t think I’ve ever been in this place when it wasn’t crowded. The line moves quickly, though, and you get plenty for your money. I’ve been in several times and tried a variety of dishes.

Burritos range in price from $4.39 to $4.99 for regular size, which is large, and $5.49 to $6.59 for large, which is muy grande. (Vegetarian models can be had for a bit less, $3.79 regular and $4.79 large.) Other food options include tacos (soft or crispy, from $1.69 to $2.29 for a single, $4.79 to $6.59 for three); nachos and quesadillas and dinner salads.

There’s excellent fresh iced tea and fountain drinks, not to mention bar service that reportedly includes estimable margaritas, although I haven’t indulged.

Weather permitting, Salsarita’s spacious patio is popular. Rain or shine, it’s a welcome Mexican addition to our East End dining options.

Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina
285 N. Hubbards Lane
(502) 897-5323