18512 MacArthur Blvd.
Irvine, CA 92612
You can add me to the list of people that had probably written off El Torito. I can't remember what the family gathering was for, but I can remember that we left the restaurant not too happy with how things had worked out for us during that meal. There were dinners that were missing, we had a large gaps in service, and the food itself was pretty pedestrian. Needless to say it was the last time we were at an El Torito for dinner, and that was close to five years ago.
It was sad that El Torito, a chain restaurant that had helped popularize Mexican food in the United States, had seemed to have lost its luster. Started in 1954 by Larry Cano, this seemed to be a restaurant that had peaked in the late eighties, when they opened 54 new stores in one year. After being sold numerous times, they now operate 68 restaurants, of which, 12 of those are in OC. At least now they are owned by a company that knows a thing or two about Mexican food, Real Mex Restaurants. Real Mex not only owns El Torito, but they also own Acapulco's, Chevy's, and Las Brisas.
We were recently invited to try El Torito's new Flavors of Baja menu. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical about whether I was going to like this special menu or not. I had asked around my work if any of my coworkers had been to El Torito recently, and no one had, except for Sunday brunch and a trip to Taco Tuesday. So I showed up at Katie's work and we took a short car ride over to the El Torito that is right across from John Wayne Airport.
I had expected the restaurant to be slow on this Wednesday night, but they had a steady stream of customers during our visit. The bar area was pretty packed, the large dining room had a lot of occupied tables, and even as we were leaving they had just sat a party of ten. We were sat promptly, and met by Manager Ben Morales and Research and Development Chef Loreto, both of whom would be walking us through the Flavors of Baja menu. They both seemed very proud to share this menu with us, so I started to feel like this was not going to be like my last El Torito experience.
Not on the Flavors of Baja menu, but you can not come to El Torito and not experience their Fresh Tableside Guacamole. Sorry for the poor action shot of our waiter, George making this up for us, but he was pretty quick when mixing the avocados, tomatoes, cilantro, onions and Serrano chiles. This was a good sized portion of guacamole, but Katie and I really put a good sized dent into this rather quickly. I would have liked this a little spicier, but I knew Katie likes things a little more mild. It had a very good consistency, between being too lumpy and too smooth. George must be a real expert at making this after his five years on the job here.
After our little detour off of the regular El Torito menu, it was now time to see what the Flavors of Baja menu had in store for us. First up were the Baja Trio Appetizer ($9.99). Chef Loreto explained to us that he believes that ceviche came from Japanese immigrants who settled on the Baja peninsula. These tacos all had a different version of ceviche inside of them. My favorite of the three was the one with crab, red jalapeno, fennel and ginger aioli. The crab was very fresh, and the taco heated up as I ate it. Big flavors working here. The halibut taco came with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and avocado. I thought this one was going to be a little boring, but I liked the simplicity of it, and the halibut was done nicely. The spicy shrimp taco was probably my least favorite of the three, but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. This unusual taco combined shrimp, jicama, green apple, Serrano chiles, and guacamole. The textures on this taco were the highlight of it for me. A very nice crunch with the jicama and apple.
Our culinary tour of Baja continued with the Mexicali Enchiladas ($12.49). This colorful plate was centered by three enchiladas basted with guajillo sauce, and filled with chicken and manchego cheese. The enchiladas in Baja are not drenched in sauce, like other areas of Mexico. The result is a lighter enchilada, with some very tender pulled chicken inside. I also liked the use of the manchego cheese here, which helped to prevent this dish from becoming too heavy. This was served with a very nice roasted corn and pasilla peppers, which added some gradual heat to this meal. A very nice variation from the usual enchiladas served in Mexican restaurants.
Most of the time when people think of Baja, the food that automatically comes to mind is the fish taco. So it's no surprise that Baja Halibut Tacos ($14.99) are on El Torito's Flavors of Baja menu. These come three to a plate, with beer battered halibut, ginger aioli, cabbage, avocado, and caramelized onions inside of a soft corn tortilla.This was a very solid fish taco. The breading was nicely done, with a pleasant crunch to it, and the cabbage and watermelon radish added some texture components. The tortilla was not rubbery like others can tend to be. El Torito does Baja well, with this rendition of the fish taco. I also must make mention of the Baja white rice that was served with this. The rice had some roasted vegetables and manchego cheese in it to elevate this from your normal humdrum Mexican style rice.
Now we were getting into my wheelhouse. I am a carnitas fiend, so I was excited to see that carnitas were part of the Flavors of Baja menu. These Carnitas en Tablita ($15.49) were a little different from others. The pork here is simmered in garlic, oranges, and other spices. The citrus tinge was very evident. I missed the fried tips of other carnitas, but these were some very tender pork pieces. The pork is served with all of the usual accompaniments; avocado, grilled onions, beans, and warm tortillas. I went without the tortillas, and just ate these carnitas by the forkful. A very good version of carnitas.
Even after all of the food we had eaten, I was still excited when this plate hit our table. The Jalapeno Bacon Wrapped Shrimp ($17.99) were fantastic. These shrimp were huge, and wrapped expertly with bacon, jalapeno chiles, and manchego cheese. Talk about big time flavor. The shrimp was briny, the jalapeno added a little heat, and the natural deliciousness from the bacon made this dish a winner. I ate more than my fair share of these, as Katie started to to feel the effects of this so far six course meal. I wasn't complaining though.
Can't make up your mind about what to order off of the Flavors of Baja menu, El Torito has you covered. The Baja Sampler ($15.49) will take you on a trip around the Baja peninsula. This plate starts with a Halibut Taco, then continues on with a Chicken Enchilada, and finishes up with two of the great Jalapeno Bacon Wrapped Shrimp. The dish is then finished off with the addictive Baja White Rice. We had them wrap this up for us, as there was no chance we could have put a dent into this plate. It heated up nicely for lunch the next day, and made my coworkers jealous, while they were stuck with awful supermarket food.
It has been a long time, but we had to try the Deep Fried Ice Cream to finish out our meal at El Torito. This was a very generous serving size for dessert. The ice cream was coated in what I believed to be corn flakes and topped with whipped cream. It was just like I remembered it. I like the contrast between the crunchy exterior and the smooth, cool ice cream inside.
This trip to El Torito has definitely piqued my interest in this pioneering restaurant chain. All of the food we experienced on this night was flavorful, presented well, and satisfied us immensely. A far cry from the last time we ate at El Torito. If you would like to experience the Flavors of Baja menu, you have to hurry and get to your nearest El Torito soon, because this Baja menu is only available until the end of the month, when it is replaced with a menu featuring the food of Mexico City. We are really looking forward to that. Also, if you have no plans for Thanksgiving, or you just don't want to cook, all El Torito's will be open from 11 til 7PM, offering a buffet of turkey, ham, apple jalapeno stuffing, cream of pumpkin soup, Mexican favorites, and plenty more. The buffet is very reasonable, with prices at $17.99 for adults and kids costing only $6.99.
We would like to thank everyone at El Torito who made this visit so enjoyable for us. We were not only impressed with the Flavors of Baja menu, but everyone we encountered really made us feel at home. We would like to thank General Manager Ben Morales and Chef Loreto who took time out of their busy night to share insights about the food, and answer our questions. We really enjoyed meeting both of you, and can not wait to see you both again soon. Our waiter, George was on top of his game, and made sure our every need was met. Thanks for everything George. Lastly, we would like to thank Nerissa Silao who was kind enough to invite us to experience this special menu at El Torito. Thanks for this opportunity Nerissa.
If you would like to experience the Flavors of Baja menu, or get any other information about El Torito, go to their website here: http://www.eltorito.com/home.html