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.
Opened in 2007, Toloache is the first in a series of restaurants offered by chef-owner Julian Medina, a native of Mexico City trained in both Mexican and French cooking. Before striking out on his own, Medina worked in some of the top Mexican restaurants in the city, including Richard Sandoval’s Maya, and even branched out into Japanese cooking at SushiSamba, a Japanese-South American restaurant with locations around New York City. He recently appeared on Iron Chef America (secret ingredient: Mexican chocolate), later offering his creations from the show on a limited-edition Iron Chef Menu. He is now the proud owner of Coppelia, YerbaBuena and two other branches of Toloache.
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.
Toloache makes serious margaritas, in which high-quality tequila really shines through, the other flavors added only to dress it up and enhance it. (Cocktail menu here.) The margarita “De la Calle” with cucumber, jalapeño and lime is particularly good. The less well-known “mezcalitas” are perhaps even better, drawing on the fantastic smokiness of mezcal, a Mexican beverage that is also made from agave, but using a different process than tequila. The Mezcalita de Piña is beautifully composed, with smokey mezcal, grilled pineapple, jalapeño, cilantro and lime. Toloache has a huge selection of tequilas and mezcals, with over 100 different varieties to choose from.
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.
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.
Year-round dessert options include cinnamon-powdered churros with a duo of dipping sauces. As much as I prefer Spanish-style churros — crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, not sweet, no cinnamon and dipped in thick, bittersweet hot chocolate — Toloache’s are a nice rendition of the Mexican variety. But my favorite Toloache dessert is the banana crepes, warm and layered with a subtle banana flavor and served with fresh banana ice cream.
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).