Event - Tasting El Torito's Baja Menu

It's been a long while since I've last been to an El Torito. With so many restaurants cropping up in Orange County, it's a little difficult to make rounds back to places explored before, particularly ones that, to be honest, did not leave good impressions previously. However, it looks to me as if El Torito is trying to turn themselves around a bit in terms of branding and menu (even the logos have changed at some restaurants). When we got an email about their limited-time-only Baja menu and an invitation to give it a try, we went in with open minds. After all, change happens all the time! This menu launched at all 57 of their restaurants and will be available until October 21, 2013 in case you are interested.

During our visit, we were fortunate to meet their Executive Chef Loreto and Chef Arturo, the former of which stopped by after every dish to explain his ingredients and inspiration. He grew up in Guadalajara, Jalisco, an area in southern Mexico and chose to feature Baja food because, as he said, "everyone loves Baja food." There are plans to have a Mexico City-themed menu in the coming weeks as well!

They were featuring three signature cocktails for this particular menu including a riff on their most popular Cadillac Margarita - the Skinny Mango Cadillac Margarita (7.99 - 1800 Silver Tequila, sugar-free mango, fresh lime juice, and shot of Cointreau Noir), a drink much better with the shot of alcohol than without but understandably a favorite in the restaurant. It was our favorite of the two others which were the , too tart Los Cabos Margarita (8.95 - Cabo Wabo Silver tequila, Damiana Liqueur, and fresh orange juice) and too strong Baja Mule (8.95 - Russian Standard vodka, strawberry, and ginger beer) which would have benefited from less tequila.

We started off the evening's food with their Baja Trio Appetizer (9.99 - mini ceviche tacos: crab with red jalapeño, fennel, and ginger aioli; spicy shrimp with jicama, green apple, serrano chiles, and guacamole; and halibut with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and avocado), a dainty starter with fried shells to give a good crunch factor. The halibut seemed a tad on the mushy side when had, and we did wonder if the shrimp had been parcooked prior to being added. It came off overcooked; had it been sitting too long in lime juice? For both of those tacos, we really enjoyed the vegetables on top though, especially watermelon radish which is apparently a common ingredient in the northern Pacific and Baja regions of Mexico. You learn something new every day! The crab was a tinge too fishy for my liking but had a good texture, almost like Dungenness.

To continue with the taco love, we received the anticipated Baja Halibut Tacos (14.99 - Alaskan halibut beer-battered tacos topped with ginger aioli, cabbage, caramelized onions and avocado) next. They are better known for the Ensenada-style so this was a welcome change. For a fun fact, you should know that these battered fish tacos are not originally Mexican but actually are a product of Japanese fishermen who had migrated to Baja in the 20th century; they had brought tempura cooking to the area, and the fish taco evolved from there! Fun fact right? Well this one was different from the ones we normally see because of their toppings which include watermelon radish too. It came next to a charred chipotle sauce (which it didn't need) and white Baja rice - lovely. The fish was nice and flaky with a slow heat but we wish the beer batter's flavor hadn't been so hidden by the vegetables. It still gave the necessary crunch but I was curious as to its nuances. Oh well.

More appetizers came in the form of Jalapeno Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp (17.99 - grilled wild Mexican shrimp, roasted jalapeno chiles, Manchego cheese, and bacon on banana leaf with Baja white rice and roasted vegetables), a plate made for the gluttons among us and bacon-lovers. Chef Loreto informed us that bacon is a popular ingredient in Baja cuisine so he happily included it on his menu. These grilled shrimp were first wrapped in the roasted jalapeno before being wrapped in bacon. These were, in turn, brushed with a housemade jalapeno jelly and then paired with a jalapeno butter. It's quite obvious why many would order it but I found it a tad salty at points. It's certainly not a dish to order for solo eaters due to size. We also saw their most sold item, the Baja Sampler (15.49 - Jalapeno Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp, Mexicali Enchilada, and Baja Halibut Taco), which was a taster of various starters.

In regards to entrees, there were the Carnitas en Tablita (15.49 - tender pork simmered in garlic, oranges and spices and served with a fiery grilled toreado, grilled Mexican cebollita, avocado, frijoles de la olla, and warm tortillas) and Mexicali Enchiladas (12.49 - tortillas basted in guajillo sauce filled with pulled chicken and Manchego cheese served atop roasted corn and pasilla peppers).  The carintas were in a different style due to its high citrus, overnight marination and slow roasting method. Grapefruit, lime, and orange juices had been used on this tender meat that fell away to our forks easily; there was a definite light sweetness from the residual sugars and a refreshing flavor to it all. The accompanying sauce was unnecessary next to the juiciness of the meat itself, and the accompanying tortillas seemed housemade. The toreado pepper crept up on me in the night and made me wish I hadn't eaten this intensely spicy yet flavorful pepper. As for the enchiladas, they were prepared in a non-traditional way with very little sauce and lightly browned with the peppers themselves (like how Chef Loreto's mother used to make it). We loved that they weren't smothered and sat atop delectable roasted corn. The cornball cake on the side also helped make the enchiladas our favorite dish from the menu.

Not on the Baja menu but certainly still important were the desserts. We opted for their Homestyle Flan (4.99 - rich vanilla custard topped with golden caramel sauce and whipped cream) and a side of Dolce de Leche Ice Cream we just asked for. The flan was deliciously creamy with just the right level of sweetness (not too sweet!) that some flan desserts do not achieve. It could have done without the whipped cream, however. For the ice cream, the inclusion of cinnamon sugar fried tortilla strip made the dish entirely more enjoyable, and we found it all a good finish to our meal. Our thanks to everyone for having us at El Torito, to the chefs for their food and time, and to Ernesto for waiting on us.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos are available on Facebook here.

El Torito on Urbanspoon