Restaurants & Reservations: Dining in Cincinnati

What happens when a rabbi and a lawyer walk into a bar? We'll let you know in a few years, but until then we'll do our best to share with you our favorite (and not-so-favorite) Cincinnati restaurants and hope you'll share some with us, too!

Great Hyde Park Mexican restaurant? Bull-ogna!

El Toro Restaurante Mexicano3816 Paxton Avenue • Cincinnati, OH 45209 • (513) 321-4222
His Take

El Toro, a Mexican restaurant, is one of the latest results of the revolving-door that is Hyde Park Plaza. We stopped in for lunch the other day to finally give it a shot now that they’ve have time to settle in. And in short, we likely won’t be back. El Toro is basically a cheap version of Don Pablo's with the food and service to match the prices.

When we arrived for lunch around noon, we were quickly seated in a very sparsely populated restaurant. All of the booths have bull-horn cutouts on the back, and the walls are freshly painted with vibrant colors and attractive artwork. But unfortunately for them, it takes more than paint to really create ambiance. You need people for that, too.

Our server for lunch went through the motions of taking our order without having any real personality. There was no friendly greeting, no smile, no enthusiasm, nada. And even more annoyingly, he was clearly instructed to always refer to us as “amigos”. Now, I understand vein attempts to infuse Mexican culture into a fast-food Midwestern restaurant, but having a bored-to-death Caucasian saying “Are you ready to order, amigos? Can I get you anything else, amigos?” gets old really fast.

The menus at El Toro are enormous without good cause. They basically take your standard Mexican-fare dishes (e.g., burritos, enchiladas, chalupas, tostadas, etc.) and then give you every possible permutation of those dishes. Those combinations then have the super creative names of Special Lunch #1, Special Lunch #2, etc.

I ordered a Taco Salad Fajita — a tortilla bowl with fajita-style chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, etc. The strangest addition to it was refried beans in my salad. I’ve ordered my share of Southwest/Mexican salads from inauthentic Mexican restaurants over the years—in truth it’s one of my favorite kinds of salads—and they all have had black beans. So, when I see “beans” on the menu for a salad, I assume black beans. I was surprised to see refried beans in my salad, and having seen what it looks like after eating for a few minutes, I now know why no one else used refried beans in a salad. Bad idea. The rest of the salad tasted fine; nothing special, unless you really, really like iceberg lettuce. The tortilla bowl tasted pretty standard, and there were no accompaniments that come with the salad.

Other than the walls, the restaurant basically shots “low-budget”. We didn’t hear one outgoing, friendly server while we were there. The water glasses are Pizza-Hut style Pepsi cups, and even the bills look like they were rung up on a 25-year old cash register or calculator with ticker-tape.

As we sat and ate our meal, we concluded that El Toro is unlikely to last very long. If you’re craving Americanized Mexican food, you’re better off at Don Pablo's, though you’ll pay a little bit more depending on when you go and what you order. If you want something a little more high-end, head to Cactus Pear, where the dishes are more creative and better tasting, and the higher price gets you good, friendly service, too.
Her Take

We got hungry for lunch, and made a quick choice to try out El Toro, recently opened in Hyde Park Plaza, in the former Daybreak space. Just past noon on a Saturday, it was relatively empty; fewer than a quarter of the tables had people. The space its in feels like it could be a higher (middle?) end restaurant, but the El Toro decor seems to have been done on a tight budget. The tops of the booths curve up into horns (get it? Toro means bull, so...horns), there are pictures painted directly onto the walls, but that’s about it. The first indication that this is a fairly low-end restaurant is the candy on the register counter for sale. At some point I noticed that the entire waitstaff was male. I don’t know that it’s a big deal, or that it wasn’t just this particular shift, but the host, the waitstaff, the 11-ish year old kid behind the cash register who we assume came to work with his dad, every employee we saw was male, which just struck me as a little odd.

The menu is overwhelming. There is a page of lunch specials, also good on Saturdays, and priced between $5 and $7, but completely uninspiring. They are simply different combinations of standard menu items, and numbered. As in, “lunch special 4” might be one taco, one chalupa, and one burrito. What’s the precise difference between those three at this particular restaurant? It’s unclear. They’re never described on the menu. So looking for a bit of inspiration (and description!), we flipped past the lunch specials into the rest of the looooooooong menu. There is a section or two where the dishes have actual names, but there are more sections where everything is either numbered or lettered. In the vegetarian section, the dishes are A, B, C, instead of 1, 2, 3. There is also an a la carte section, so if you don’t like their combination of single items in the “specials,” you can create your own. They never actually explain what each item is, so if you don’t already know the difference, or if you realize that every restaurant you’ve ever been to defines these items a bit differently, you’re out of luck at El Toro.

The waiter (who greeted us with a very American accented “hola” and referred to both of us as “amigo”) brought us chips and salsa while we were still reading the menu. The chips were decent, and at least warm. The salsa had good flavor, but I prefer salsa to have actual chunks. It stays on the chips better that way. This stuff was pretty runny, and kept dripping off of the chips. (Also problematic because we had no plates on the table until our meals arrived, so it got a little messy.)

I ordered Veggie Fajitas. I got three plates: one with foil-wrapped, folded tortillas. One with pico de gallo, guacamole, shredded iceberg lettuce, rice-with-nothing-in-it, and a puddle of refried beans, and the third was a hot pan sizzling with my veggies: mostly onions, some green pepper strips, some tomatoes, and a few slices of button mushrooms. I took my foil-wrapped tortillas off of their plate so that I had a place to put my fajitas together. They were ok, but nothing particularly exciting. The veggies didn’t seem to have any seasoning, and everything else could have come from a jar, and I wouldn’t be surprised.

For chain tex-mex, I recommend Don Pablo’s. For a more upscale version, I recommend Cactus Pear. If you’re looking for cheap-with-table-service, then (and only then) El Toro is your spot.

El Toro Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon


FoodHussy said...

El RAncho Grande just opened not too long ago at Kenwood where Macaroni Grill was. Go there...always great and cheap!

Robert said...

While the menu doesn't stand out from most other Mexican restaurants I've been to around here, to categorize this as even close to Don Pablo's is a shame.
I've been to El Toro for dinner several times now, and have always found the waitstaff to be exceedingly friendly and, in fact, Mexican. I don't remember seeing any Caucasians, so it must depend on the time of day. I've mostly been there on Sunday evenings, though I did go once mid-week and had the same positive experience.
I can't speak for the lunch experience, but for dinner, I plan to return.