951 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, CA
Web: El Torito Grill
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"We lucked out with the Ceviche de Pescado ($11.50), a circular stack of chunked sea bass, sweet yellow mango, and red pepper pieces in a bath of orange-lime juice."
"Why is authentic Mexican food so hard to find in Buffalo?" Readers ask us this question at least once a month, demonstrating that they know the difference between real Mexican cuisine and the stuff that's most commonly served in Western New York. The answer we've heard numerous times from restaurants and patrons alike is disturbingly dismissive: "people here don't know - or care - about the difference." That's not really true; some people know and care a lot, while others don't. Yet in any case, it's demonstrably true that those who have only experienced Mexican food in Western New York really have barely experienced Mexican food at all. Sorry, fans of Mighty Taco, Taco Bell, and Gramma Mora's, but hard shell tacos and baskets of nachos do not a real Mexican meal make, and as good as the food may be at La Tolteca, it can't compare to the stuff that's served in California. This article, as well as its accompanying photographs, offers a brief look at what Mexican food is supposed to be like, as represented by a handful of popular restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange County. One of these places is actually coming to Western New York later this year or early in 2010, as we discuss further below.
El Torito Grill: As much as we truly love independent Mexican restaurants in California, we used to count upon the nine-location chain of El Torito Grill restaurants for consistently good, higher-end meals; our visit this time only reaffirmed our admiration for its food. Witness here the beautiful, richly colored plates, starting with the vibrant orange and red tamales and enchiladas, then continuing with the crispy red taquitos, all filled with lots of chicken and soft ground corn, light sauces on top contrasting against the heavy fillings. Then there are the fresh black beans, which put to shame the runny brown ones served at so many places, and the green cilantro-pasilla chile flavored rice, ever so slightly spicy, served with bits of yellow corn and red peppers. At many Mexican restaurants, the rice and beans are throwaways; here, they're worth cleaning off the plates. By comparison, the steak-filled tacos - served in freshly made, slightly browned soft tortilla shells - are also good, but almost an afterthought. El Torito Grill's menu also includes both authentic Mexican items and ones inspired by Mexican cuisine: tamarind-raspberry Chipotle Barbecue Ribs, which we've loved in the past, mesquite-grilled Shrimp Diabla skewers, and Lobster Fajitas are all available in the $18 range, alongside marinated pork carnitas, fire-roasted vegetable platters, and citrus-chipotle marinated grilled chicken, all in the $12 to $14 range.
The real surprises are ones that are barely noticeable. Small scoops of sweet corn cake on each plate were so delicious and moist that we couldn't believe how much of an impact they made relative to their size. And those soft tortilla shells - both in the tacos, and inside the plastic canisters that are brought to the table along with salsas and sweet butter - are homemade on site, cooked on a massive Mongolian barbecue-style hot surface in full view of the restaurant's dining room. It is these tortillas, served hot enough to melt the butter, and as a replacement for pre-meal bread, that distinguish El Torito Grill from its far more numerous, downscale sister restaurants called El Torito, which instead serve tortilla chips with its meals, and offer fewer of the fancy items above, closer in menus and decor to the better Mexican restaurants in Western New York. El Torito Grill, by comparison, destroys any conception people might have of Mexican food as cheap and low-end; it is by no means the only or even the best place to accomplish this feat, but it is amongst our favorites.
Las Brisas: Owned by the same parent company as El Torito Grill, Laguna Beach's Las Brisas (361 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651, 949.497.5434) is another upscale Mexican restaurant, but a one-off: it directly overlooks a beautiful coastal strip while offering a wide variety of high-end Mexican seafood dishes. We visited Las Brisas to satisfy our craving for a cool seafood ceviche, and lucked out with the Ceviche de Pescado ($11.50), a circular stack of chunked sea bass, sweet yellow mango, and red pepper pieces in a bath of orange-lime juice. Served and citrus-cooked cold - at least, below room temperature - ceviche is hard to come by in Western New York, but in California, it's easy to find and invariably delicious at nicer Mexican places, changing mostly in the type of seafood and whatever extras, such as mango, that get added to the pile. Equally impressive in presentation was the Guacamole Estilo Mexico ($11), a similarly-shaped hockey puck made from coarse ground green avocado, sitting underneath stripes of red tomatoes, cotija cheese, and chopped purple onions. Served with multi-colored tortilla chips, the Guacamole was light, fresh, and tasty, but not hugely different in flavor from what can be found at Western New York Latin locales such as Sole.
Wahoo's Fish Taco: To the extent that any chain can be identified regionally with starting a certain culinary craze, Wahoo's is a prime example. It was and is the fish taco king of Southern California, the place that locally popularized the idea of fresh fish as an alternative to beef, chicken, and pork tacos, sparking numerous wannabes. Today, Wahoo's has expanded into three states, two with numerous locations, all virtually identical to the one we have been visiting at the Irvine Spectrum mall (81 Fortune Drive #151, Irvine, CA 92618, 949.753.0251) for years. Though there are many good to great items on the menu, including some of the best beer-battered onion rings around - just as good as at the best places in Western New York - the stars here are the two types of fish tacos, one grilled, light, and tender, the other a very modestly battered and peppered "blackened" version. Wahoo's uses Wahoo and/or Mahi-Mahi fish for its tacos, depending on availability, and serves all of its tacos with shredded cabbage, diced tomatoes, and cheddar cheese by default; lime slices are included on the sides. Shrimp is also offered as an alternative to fish, and almost equally compelling. Between the freshness of these ingredients - particularly the fish - and the tang of the lime, there's an argument to be made that these tacos need nothing else to blow people away. The many basically anonymous Mexican taco trucks and taquerias found around Southern California all thrive on a similar formula: fresh, delicious ingredients, including big chunks of marinated meat rather than ground beef, are enough.
La Salsa: The flip side of the taco debate is represented by La Salsa, a chain that also uses very fresh core ingredients, but stands out because of the variety of sauces and toppings available to customers. If you've visited Salsarita's or Moe's, you have the general idea of what to expect here: a menu that's heavy on the tacos, burritos, and salads, with quesadillas, nachos, and taquitos - fried soft shell tacos, stuffed with meat - as backups. What makes La Salsa unique is its salsa bar, which includes eight different salsas, plus sliced onions, tomatoes, limes, and cilantro, any or all of which can be added to your taco, taken in cups for use with the nachos, or mixed in with whatever else you might be ordering.
It's hard to explain just how profoundly these salsas change the taco and nacho eating experience. Mix the ultra-spicy Habanero salsa with a steak taco, some chopped tomatoes and onions, and you'll have an explosion of savory heat in your mouth the likes of which chicken wing fans will salivate over for years; cooler mango, avocado, or fire-roasted tomato salsas make for sweeter tacos that taste fresh and light. Mexicana, Buena Caliente, and Verde salsas offer different levels of spice to cater to middle-of-pack palates. These salsas could make anything taste good, but the quality of the meats at this chain - the pork carnitas, the carne asada steak, or the grilled fish - can make even their dry tacos worthwhile. Other chains have tried to emulate the La Salsa formula, but none has succeeded in offering the quality and variety of items here for such reasonable prices; gourmet-quality tacos start here at $2 a piece.
Chipotle Mexican Grill: Though we wouldn't call this Denver, Colorado-based taco and burrito chain ultra-authentic, it is both increasingly popular and coming to Western New York, specifically, to Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst. We weren't planning to include it in this article until it announced its local expansion plans; at that point, we visited its newest Southern California location (27221 La Paz, Laguna Niguel, CA 92677, 949.448.8328) to see what we should expect when it arrives near us in December 2009 or early 2010.
Chipotle's small menu does include some novelties, including the Barbacoa Taco, shown at the top of our photo alongside a Carne Asada Taco. The Barbacoa is actually a beef brisket taco that's generously apportioned with braised, soft meat, while the Carne Asada uses tender cubes of marinated and grilled steak. Each taco is made from considerably better and fresher ingredients than the typical Taco Bell or Mighty Taco alternative - such as sliced green peppers, red onions, and many other options - yet still sells for around $2, and includes a choice of four increasingly spicy sauces, as well. The bad news? Other than decor and a few different ingredients, Chipotle is so much like Moe's or Salsarita's that it is unlikely to bring anything hugely new to the area. Its most intriguing innovation is an iPhone ordering application, which lets you place an order for pickup and skip waiting in the assembly line inside; hopefully this won't be its biggest draw.
Our series of articles on Southern California dining experiences that belong in Western New York will continue with a fun topic: burgers. We can't wait to show you what's going on with them.