Visiting a friend's new digs in Mt. Vernon, we found ourselves in an elevator-type awkwardness situation—standing next to strangers in the vestibule, waiting silently for our respective hosts to let us in already. Entryways in this neighborhood are known for rich deposits of takeout menus, and our unrestrained glee at the sight of one titled "El Torito Mexican Restaurant" sparked commiseration about what Mt. Vernon has long lacked—decent Mexican. We made a mental note to visit the place and are happy to report that El Torito does much to remedy this dearth with fresh, straightforward, well-made, and sometimes exceptional food.
Located in a tidy, if unremarkable, rowhouse, El Torito is an odd hybrid of suburban living room circa 1980 and "South of the Border" souvenir shop. But owner/waitress/hostess Yamira Castro's genial warmth and authentic preparations invariably make us forget all about the squeaky, protective clear vinyl on the tables and the enormous black velvet sombrero on the wall dominating our field of view.
Drinks are limited, as the liquor license is pending, and BYOB is not yet permitted. Bottled soft drinks and fresh-fruit smoothies called licuados are currently the only options. The compulsory kickoff of chips (of the crunchy, fried flour tortilla variety) and homemade salsa is above average. Of the smattering of appetizers offered, we recommend the satisfyingly toasty quesadilla.
Tacos here are true Mexican style, with meats ranging from the standard grilled beef and chicken to more traditional lengua (beef tongue), carnitas (roast pork), and cesina (salted beef) piled atop a pair of corn tortillas. All the meats are well-seasoned and tender, particularly the succulent and super-beefy lengua, which we think makes for the best tacos. Another option is chorizo, a spicy cumin-laced sausage—El Torito's is unusually good, one of the best we've had in the city.
As good as the tacos are, the kitchen's abilities are most apparent when executing its entrées. The mojarra frita is the standout, hands-down—a deep-fried whole porgy (fish) whose perfectly crisp exterior and moist, savory flesh widened our eyes with every bite. We must admit encountering such a treat was a bit of a shock. And it is a ludicrously good value at $9.95.
El Torito also manages to produce a very good chiles rellenos, which, given its rarity, seems no small feat. Roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese are deep-fried and topped with sauce as per usual. The difference here is the delicateness of the batter, the cheese filling (which remained slightly firm yet melty), and the freshness of the sauce.
We found the ingredients to be top-notch in all the dishes—real queso fresco, not the processed shredded stuff, is used in the burritos, and enchiladas are available with a smoky homemade mole sauce. Lesser known but just as good are tortas-cemitas, the gargantuan Mexican sandwiches, and sopes, which are essentially open-faced tacos.
Desserts are limited to flan and a strawberry and yogurt concoction served with cream, but the aforementioned fresh-fruit shakes (melon is quite good) make for a nice sweet ending.
El Torito Mexican Restaurant, 110 W. Mulberry St., 410-244-7072. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Sun. Appetizers: $2-6.95; tacos, $2.50; entrées, $8.95-13.95; desserts, $3.