A couple of years ago, our dear Tucson friends, Dan & Wanda, moved to Austin, TX. On a rare visit back to the Old Pueblo, they stayed with Ms. Karen & me for several days recently. We had a lovely time together, as always. That was expected.
What wasn’t expected was their “must go to” Mexican restaurant. Surprisingly, they had not been salivating in anticipation of dining at one of our better known Mexican establishments, such as El Charro Café on Court Street or Theresa’s Mosaic Café hidden behind the McDonalds at Silverbell & Grant. Instead, they wanted to take Ms. Karen & me to El Torero in South Tucson, their favorite.
We’ve known this couple for years and know them to have discerning taste in all things, so we happily accepted their invite, although we had never heard of El Torero (the bullfighter). This was certain to be an exceptional meal.
El Torero is located on 26th Street half a block west of 6th Avenue, not a neighborhood anyone would mistake for “well-to-do” or even “middle class” Americana. For all practical purposes, this IS Mexico. As this was a Sunday afternoon, the miniscule parking lot was almost full with perhaps 5 cars and/or trucks. We parked on the street.
In the front of the restaurant were several well-worn signs that appeared to have been painted by a talented cartoonist about the time El Torero first opened in 1956.
As we entered the restaurant and walked past the long bar, it quickly became apparent that we had not only been transported back in time to the 1950’s, but had been whisked to another state entirely; the state of Jalisco, Mexico, home of the proud owner of this simple bar & eatery.
No one will mistake the ambiance for upscale anything. In fact, “ambiance” is probably the wrong word, since its over-use nowadays lends it a certain positive connotation.
The chairs and tables are what you might expect to find in the basement of a Salvation Army store. The large paintings of bullfighters that hang on the walls are like the ones you can acquire today in Nogales, Sonora for less than a hundred dollars (U.S.).
Of the twenty odd tables, perhaps only five had diners, including our party of 4, the only Anglos to be seen for at least a square mile. Yet the persistent screams of an unhappy infant in one corner informed us that, when this place is busy, the noise level would drown out the roar of a full-throttle F-16 taking off from Davis-Montham.
OK, enough about El Torero’s authentic Mexican ambiance. We were here for the food. Wanda suggested we order an appetizer. Apparently El Torero is famous for their cheese crisps con green chili. Naturally …
When it was served at our table on a large platter pizza-style by one of the two great-grandmotherly waitresses, we munched on a thin, crunchy tortilla about 18 inches round covered with a thick layer of melted cheddar cheese and topped with green chilies, almost assuredly from a can.
We assumed, but didn’t really know, that the waitresses had started working here as lovely young senoritas back in the 50’s. No matter, they seemed as much a part of the place as the fixtures.
Two bowls of chips and two cups of salsa were on our table almost as soon as we sat down. This much I expect from a good Mexican restaurant. I also expect fresh chips, hot-just-out-of-the-oven. These chips were warm, meaning, warmed over … and over. The salsa was nothing to write home about. Rather bland, actually. And definitely not made with fresh ingredients in this decade.
Along with our cheese crisp, we each ordered a beer. El Torero has a large selection of 4 beers. Dan and Ms. Karen ordered a Dos Equis Dark on tap, and I had a Pacifico. Wanda had the other kind. Before our meal was half consumed we each ordered another.
Perhaps at this point, you may be asking yourself, “Why didn’t they order margaritas?” Excellent questions! El Torero does not offer margaritas, although they have a full bar. What’s up with that?
Dan ordered the carne seca: aged & seasoned shredded Angus beef. When it arrived he shared a couple of bites with me. Significantly different than the carne seca at El Charro Café on Court Street: spicier, more vinegar, salt & pepper I think, but VERY tasty. A just-made paper-thin flour tortilla accompanied his meal. Even the justly famous fresh tortillas at Mosaic Café are not as thin. And they do not make these to-go.
Wanda ordered the chili relleno: unstuffed canned green chilies and a side of frijoles. T’were much to her liking. Ms. Karen had a bite of Wanda’s chili relleno and pronounced it EXCELLENT!
Ms. Karen had two tostados: one carne seca and the other chili verde con carne. Crispy lettuce. Verde good. Seca really good. “Might even be better than El Charro’s”, said she. (She likes vinegar).
I ordered their flag ship dish, La Bandera (the flag): three enchiladas of different colors depending on content. The beef was the same as Dan’s carne seca, except mine was in little chunks of Angus beef rather than shredded. The beans tasted about the same as any Mexican place in town. But the seasoned beef was as good or better than any place in town.
Warning: given the Bandera’s super-rich starch and high salt content, plus its large portion, this dish is a world-class artery-clogger. Both delicious and life threatening at the same time.
Restrooms & Kitchens
I did have occasion to use their men’s room. In writing reviews, I generally assume that the cleanliness of the bathrooms is roughly equivalent to the cleanliness of the kitchen. It’s not that El Torero’s men’s room was filthy, but no honest health inspector would report it clean either. Rusty faucet and soap rack. Two ancient urinals, one “Not In Service” and covered with a dirty plastic bag. Old linoleum floor that should have been replace in the last century. Ms. Karen indicated that the Women’s room was a clean, one-holer.
So, how to rate El Torero Mexican Restaurant? Some of the food was just OK, such as the chips & salsa. Some dishes, such as the chili relleno and the carne seca, were OUTSTANDING, as Wanda had promised. And Wanda had warned us that El Torero is a dive, but worthwhile anyway. And she was right. If you’re looking for authentic Mexican food in an authentic Mexican neighborhood in Tucson, then El Torero is a place you should experience at least once. Then you can decide how to rate it.
Click on this link for our List of the Best Restaurants in Tucson & Southern Arizona by cuisine.