From the sidewalk of a suburban side street, adjacent to an unremarkable building, we find a jutting sign with green and red letters reads El Toro Bravo Mexican Food. Its lunch time on a Sunday in a place where the weather doesn’t stray too far from perfect year round. Ten people line up to order. Although this may be the busiest I’ve seen it, “taking it to-go” is a big hit, so there are plenty of open tables.
A red awning covers the front of the dining area. On a silver steel appliance, a sticker reads ‘Don’t Trash Beaches’. A kid with dreadlocks and flip flops juggles his plate full of tacos with a skateboard in one hand. Five out of six large flatscreens display a static menu; a Spanish-commentated Juventus vs. Milano futbol match plays on the sixth. For such an efficiently organized assortment of food, reading the menu itself is misleadingly complex. They do the familiar dishes – tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, tamales, empanadas. Rather than squinting at the menu screens, ingredients may be readily inspected by peeking through the sneeze guard. This is Mexican food for the type A personality – made to order with artisan like craftsmanship as you watch. Whatever you say goes.
Carrying a huge tray from the back, a chef unloads tongfulls of steaming slow cooked meat into the food display. Anchored by familiar crowd pleasers like pollo and carne asada, the restaurant’s real chef d’oeuvre is carnitas (which I’ve devoured on previous occasions). Located in a residential neighborhood, the nonchalant casualness and proximity assumes repeat visits, so I’m empowered to experience the chicken.
After placing a few pieces on the counter and slamming a butcher knife 5-10 times, a small mountain of fluffy chopped chicken remains. For those with a large appetite, the fact that portions here tend to be 20-30% larger than elsewhere is a distinct selling point.
After spreading refried beans on the open faced tortilla and adding a few scoops of rice, the chef piles on the chopped slow roasted chicken. Desiring a traditional combination, I dodge the guac and sour cream, selecting pico de gallo, parmesan, cilantro, onions, lettuce, and salsa picante. The tortilla maintains a putty like elasticity as the chef rolls the splayed out contents. His technique embodies a practiced muscle memory that produces a well wrapped Nalgene bottle sized finished product – toasted, then warmly nestled in a blanket of foil. Hungry and overly ambitious, we order nachos as well.
We take a seat at a high top table and I smile at the silver bullion atop the crumpled paper plate. I peel away the foil revealing a crisply toasted tortilla – flaky golden dough is malleable enough that it somehow maintains its strength as I dig in.
The first bite doesn’t exceed my expectations, as most know, either edge of a burrito tends to contain extra tortilla. The second and third bites do. The bulging burrito is wide enough that it acts like a bowl. I sample a forkfull of chicken from the squishy cylinder. The meat itself blends a charred smoke flavor with saucy marinade. The juicy natural oils almost drip from each piece of chicken. To avoid inhaling my food at a stomach condemning pace, I set it on the paper plate, standing upright, and sip a plastic cup of water.
Salsa splattering onto shirt fronts, we finish up as a young couple sheepishly walks in. She’s donning flannels and vans, he’s in a flat brimmed five-panel hat and beige new balances. The woman at the register greets him like a close relative – maybe a nephew – and hands him a Pacifico beer. They walk to the back of the line and a chefs comes around, greeting them with a smile and Spanish exchanges. Clearly regulars, the couple knows what to expect at El Toro Brave – nothing short of the finest burrito known to man.
There’s a million and one places to find great mexican food in this world. Somehow, El Toro Bravo has distinguished itself beyond the common taco shack; I’m still trying to pinpoint what exactly seduces me to return time and again.
Costa Mesa, California