MEXICAN DISHES & DRINKS FOR ALL PALATES & BUDGETS
It may come as no surprise to anyone that I, a foodie named Jose Martinez, am always on the lookout for great Mexican food. Sorry, it’s just who I am. Does that make me a stereotype? But I’m a tough critic because I grew up with the stuff. It’s hard to beat Mom’s cooking so often times I feel that Mexican restaurant food just falls short. So I was pretty happy to learn that divey St. Nick’s on Third Street was transformed into Toca Madera, an intimate 120-seat space that features a creative take on traditional Mexican cuisine designed by Executive Chef Raymond Alvarez.
Toca Madera, which translates to “knock on wood”, likes to boast that it makes for a sexy departure from the traditional Mexican restaurant experience. I’m not sure about all that but I will say that I was slightly aghast when I first saw its menu and looked at its prices—come on, $23 for guacamole, chips and salsa seems outrageous to me. I will give them credit that they’re doing a fine job serving tasty Mexican fare and solid cocktails but going out for Mexican food should never break the bank.
Chef Raymond refers to his culinary approach as “barrio style fine dining.” I’m not exactly sure what that means but it is borderline offensive (make your own “border” joke now). Influenced by traditional Latin flavors, classical training and his favorite childhood dishes, Chef’s menu incorporates a shared-plate format offering locally farm-sourced ingredients with an emphasis on organic as well as vegan and gluten-free options. Dishes offered include Tableside Guacamole; Wagyu Hot Stone; Sashimi Agua Chile; Ensenada-Style Fish Tacos; Barrio Crudités; and Mixed Mushroom & Sweet Corn Tacos, among other dishes. Farm fresh and seasonal ingredients also serve as the foundation for the impressive and extensive cocktail list courtesy of bar maven Juan Martinez.
“Toca Madera was conceived around a communal dining philosophy and the menu was designed to have choices everyone can agree on, drinker or non-drinker, vegan or paleo,” says co-creator Amrou Manaseer. “There’s something primitive about sharing a meal with friends, old and new, under the stars and by the light of a fire – it’s something that we lost a long time ago but don’t realize how much we miss.”
During our recent visit for dinner, we did feast on all sorts of dishes and drinks but I also came up with what I consider to be the perfect game plan for enjoying a great night out at Toca Madera without having to go broke in the process.
OK, let’s just get this out of the way, the guacamole made tableside and the salsa flight were pretty damn tasty. The guacamole uses locally sourced avocados and features your choice of pomegranate seeds, lime pepitas, jalapeño and cilantro served with house-made crispy plantain chips. It’s good but $12 good? One of my guests did point out that avocados are expensive these days, but still.
I asked for my guacamole spicy and I didn’t find it spicy enough. I did like that it came with plantain chips while the Salsa Flight came with warm corn tortilla chips with grilled pineapple salsa, avocado tomatillo salsa, diablo salsa and a capsaicin hot sauce. But for $11 I don’t know if it was worth it.
I say skip the guacamole and salsa and start off with the Sweet Corn Tamales with roasted pasilla chiles and fresh corn, served with fire-roasted tomato salsa and avocado tomatillo sauce. And here’s a trick to make you seem like someone really in the know. Order the off menu “Eskabeche” cocktail made with tequila, mezcal, and syrup from escabeche (pickled carrots, jalapeno and lemon juice). And make sure to ask for some of the syrup on the side, and then, and this is pure genius, pour it over the tamales. It’ll make a good dish into a truly great dish. I really wish the tamales would come this way.
While I wasn't impressed with the margaritas, there are still several cocktails that are on-point. If you really want a margarita, go with the Amante Picante with Don Julio Silver (or ask for it with DeLeón Platinum Tequila as they served it Opening Night), serrano pepper, cilantro, lime, agave, and tajin. It's got the right amount of fire and kick and is a great starter. A not to be missed cocktail is the East Los, the house signature drink made with El Silencio mezcal, house citrus mix, guajillo-mango shrub, aperol, and agave. Now we're talking cocktails!
Toca Madera is really proud of its tacos and they should be because they are delicious. But they’re also baby-sized bites and really expensive. As good as they, are two bite size tacos really worth $12-$16? Not when you can get the best damn carnitas tacos down the street at Mercado during happy hour for half the price. Sure, I loved the Braised Short Rib Taquitos served with jalapeño cabbage slaw, queso fresco, avocado tomatillo salsa, pickled onions and crema but for $16 we’re talking entrée not a tiny taquito.
The Crispy Sea Bass tacos with crispy beer-battered Chilean seabass and habañero, cucumber radish slaw was delicious, as were the Cochinita Pibil tacos and Crispy Short Rib Tacos with red wine and vegetable braised short rib, asadero, Oaxacan and panela cheeses, jalapeño cabbage, and pico de gallo. Likewise, the tasty soyrizo tacos made for a great non-meat option. But they’re just too small and too pricey to make them desirable—if you’re dining on a budget.
For your entrée, I suggest the Enchiladas De Mole prepared with free-range chicken machaca and queso fresco rolled in soft corn tortillas served with crema and lime pepita seeds. This is a hearty and savory plate and a good deal for $18.
The A La Roca—America Wagyu beef topped with cilantro and onions, seared at your table with habañero salt and grilled takin vegetables, served with three dipping sauces: jus de vino rojo, Diablo salsa and chipotle crema—sounded great and tasted good but was overpriced at $32. The portion wasn’t really big enough to share but if you’re eating this all on your own, it is a full-size dish.
If you’re looking for a tasty side dish, the Street Corn served off the cob with cotija cheese and chipotle powder is a winner. And make sure to save room for dessert, which you can afford if you follow my game plan, and get the Churro Ice Cream Sandwich made with warm cinnamon and sugar churro filled with dulce de leche ice cream with spiced Mexican chocolate shavings. It’s highly original and decadently delicious. Likewise, the Mazatlan Flan with creamy vanilla bean custard and salted caramel topped with cinnamon buñuelo was a favorite.
Looking for a last cocktail, The Caribbean with Zacapa Rum 23, giffard banana, sweetened ginger juice, lemon, and soda is a fine libation. If you don’t mind a tad sweet and frothy, the Ocho Club with Tequila Cabeza Blanco, Peychaud bitters, raspberry jam, Dolin dry, grapefruit, lemon and egg white should be a crowd pleaser.
And don’t forget about Sunday Brunch featuring churro waffles (WTF?) along with a scaled down cocktail list featuring day drinking variations on the French 75, Aperol Spritz, as well as the Michelada.
Toca Madera offers a wide range of food and drinks for every palates and budget. Go for broke and indulge on a bevy of Mexican treats, or systematically attack the menu for the best dishes at the best price—either way you’re in for a good time.
Toca Madera is located at 8450 West 3rd Street. Call 323-852-9400.
Story by Jose Martinez
Photography Courtesy of:Toca Madera