Thursday, July 26, 2012


I wasn't as adventurous as I should have been, dining at Toloache.  I had it on good word that chef Julian Medina knows his stuff, but it certainly isn't a hot-spot of the moment, and most discouragingly, it is located in Times Square.  But this was a pre-theatre necessity, and given other local options, by far the least risky.  So after fibbing our way in despite a never-made reservation, we nestled into a cramped back table in view of the flashy flat screens above the bar, and the rest of the SRO dining room.  And it turns out, packed for good reason.  Although by the looks of the crowd, most were simply at Toloache simply for convenience's sake: either pre-theatre imports or Times Square overflow.  Lots of socks and sneakers, jeans shorts, polo-shirted pot bellies and other notable hallmarks of the not-Manhattanite crowd.

Our server was definitely a melting-pot native, however, and her thick accent, while typical of the city's waitstaff demographic, contributed a note of Hispanic authenticity to the noisy din.   A smattering of specials she slowly described, repeatedly, in order to intel details hard to discern given her Spanish pronunciation and the surrounding bruit.   The most intriguing things, however, might be on the set menu: tacos di chapulines (grasshoppers) and campechanos (veal brain) are ready any time you are.  (Un?)fortunately, we were not.  After a hefty crock of (mild) traditional guacamole served with perfect, corny tortilla triangles, we did enter taco territory... just somewhat more conservatively.  Hongos e nopales were my favorite: plump with maitake and huitalacoche mushrooms and deep green chunks of cactus sprinkled with a pungent queso fresco.  Fresh flour tortillas were pliant and chewy, warmed to coddle their flavorful fillings.  Suadero (a Julian Medina signature dish, initialed on the menu) was a stewy braise of brisket with tomatillo salsa and a squiggle of horseradish crema,  nudging the authentic Mexican flavors with a little wink from a Jewish grandma.   The latter benefitted from the wedges of lime served with both; the former's flavors balanced themselves boldly without.  Served in pairs, a trio or quartet of taco options with a side or salad could amount to a fine shared meal.

For entrees we went with the Pescado Sarendeado, a generous filet of wild striper smothered in a zesty Oaxacan pasilla chile salsa, and bedded in a saucy puree of thickened cauliflower.  While not a main component of the dish, I appreciated (as I always do) the token quartered brussels sprouts that adorned the dish- despite that fact the June calendar put them far out of reach of seasonality.  Toloache doesn't focus so much on farmer-friendly as it does on flavor, but there weren't any "red flag" items on the menu, either, such as Chilean seabass or that Mexican restaurant favorite, red snapper (both on Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Avoid" list).  Seasonal ingredients will pop up on the daily specials, though, so do make an effort to decipher your server's descriptions.  And don't think that Medina doesn't  heed his vegetables: there is an entire vegetarian menu on hand, and despite the fact that "vegeterian" is spelled incorrectly and the offerings are all available from the regular menu, it should hopefully assuage most veg-heads concerns as to cross-contimination.

Luckily we had just enough time to sample one of the dessert offerings prior to showtime, because I had recently missed out on a mille-feuille opportunity at Prima that I was still regretting, so the crepas mil hojos was an easy choice.  While there weren't a thousand, the layers alternated dense crepes with a banana puree steeped in a bronzed goat's milk caramel, strewn with toasty cinnamon-dusted almond slices.   A perfectly round orb of smooth Mexican vanilla ice cream sat beneath, like a pale hombre underneath his sturdy sombrero.   Not quite good enough to make up for the original, it still held up to dinner's robust flavors.   And for the neighborhood, it passed with flying colors.  

251 West 50th street
Tel.  1(212)581-1818

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