|Guacamole Rojo with Avocado, Tomato, Red Onion, Chipotle and Queso Fresco|
It doesn't look like much from the outside, and a couple years ago you could saunter into Toloache on a Friday night and get a table. That was until New York's food scene, with some help from the New York Times, realized two things about this self-proclaimed "Mexican bistro": First, it is close enough to be considered "Theatre District." Second, and more importantly, the food and the drinks are outstanding.
It is tempting to begin the meal with chips and guacamole. Like many Mexican restaurants these days, Toloache charges $13 for theirs, an amount I find quite excessive for a dip made from at most a $1.50 avocado and some inexpensive tomatoes, garlic, chilies, cilantro and lime (simple recipe forthcoming). I can't really fault them for that, though, because it has become the norm these days and people are willing to pay it.
Chips arrive nice and hot and guacamole comes in three varieties. The "fruta" (recipe here) is made with pomegranate and other fruit, habanero chilies and Thai basil. The "rojo", which I find more effective, is nice and smokey with chipotles and queso fresco. Although they are labeled "medium" and "hot" respectively, I do not find either to be spicy at all. Odd because the salsa that comes free with the chips does have a good degree of heat.
|Various Margaritas and Mezcalitas|
The smaller plates at Toloache are generally excellent, and my usual strategy is to make a meal out of them while ignoring the entrees. Tortilla soup is warm and smokey, ladled over two kinds of Mexican cheese and topped with tortilla strips and a slice of avocado. Our version (recipe here) is just as good, but theirs benefits from attractive presentation in Mexican flag colors, the deep red soup topped with piped white crema and a drizzle of green cilantro oil. The menu offers a variety of quesadillas, nicely served open-faced, including one with Manchego cheese, corn, black truffle and huitlacoche salsa. The truffles and huitlacoche impart a deep mushroom flavor, nicely balanced by the saltiness of the cheese and a touch of sweetness from the corn.
For some lighter fare, Toloache makes refreshing ceviche. Thinly sliced hamachi is delicate and smooth, flavored with meyer lemon and topped with a crispy avocado slice. The avocado fritters, which are fantastic, are offered (for a steep price) as a side dish with dipping sauce. Yellowfin tuna ceviche is another nice choice, consisting of cubed tuna and watermelon tempered with key lime, vidalia onion and radish.
|Brisket Tacos (left) and Shrimp Tacos|
But the tacos are really the star of the menu. Offerings range from the familiar chicken or steak to the more exotic veal head with chorizo or Oaxacan-style grasshoppers with onions and jalapeño. Each order contains two tacos, simply but attractively presented on homemade soft corn tortillas. Tender braised brisket is paired with tomatillo salsa and horseradish crema. Classic fish tacos are crispy with traditional cabbage slaw. The shrimp tacos, my favorite of the moment, combine diced grilled shrimp with smokey chipotles, a texture contrast from hearts of palm and a warm, creamy salsa with a hint tamarind. Spicy lobster tacos with avocado are a luxurious splurge.
Further contributing to Medina's culinary range is a profound fondness for Jewish cooking. Medina converted to Judaism after meeting his wife, who is Jewish, and soon developed a love for producing Jewish holiday fare with a Mexican twist. As he points out, both cultures appreciate a good brisket. Toloache offers a popular Hanukkah menu with a trio of latkes, brisket tacos, smoked white fish guacamole and Mexican Sufganiyot (donuts) filled with dulce de leche. The food is accompanied by a margarita inspired by Hanukkah gelt, made with chocolate-infused tequila and gold leaf. There is also a special Passover menu with Medina's version of matzo ball soup with jalapeño and epazote, brisket tacos prepared on homemade matzo tortillas and margaritas made with kosher tequila.
|Churros with Dipping Sauces|
Advance reservations are a must for this deservedly popular spot, particularly if you intend to dine there pre-theatre. Whatever the time of day, it is a strong choice for creatively prepared tacos, refreshing ceviche and quality margaritas and mezcalitas.
251 West 50th Street
Recommended dishes: Tortilla soup ($9); quesadilla with huitlacoche ($14); shrimp tacos ($13); lobster tacos ($17); avocado fries ($9); mezcalita de pina ($12); crepes with banana ice cream ($8).
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