445 Camino Del Rio South
Being the cynical bastard that I am, when I saw the El Torito press release announcing the restaurant's new menu of Oaxacan items prepared by Chef Pepe Lopez, I quickly concluded that Pepe Lopez probably only exists in the minds of El Torito's marketing staff. When I read that he travels the Mexican countryside to learn how to prepare authentic dishes, I assumed that to be a fabrication designed to fool the gullible Olive Garden patrons of the world. Despite my misgivings, however, I wasn't about to pass up free food and drinks.
I went to the La Mesa El Torito, where the new menu items were unveiled for the press. Several suits from El Torito were in attendance. While 15 reporters RSVP'd, representatives from only three publications actually showed up. I had to stifle a chuckle at the Star-News guys, who were earnestly taking notes and photographing all the dishes. Come on, dudes, this is friggin' El Torito!
According to Frank Moreno, regional director of operations for Southern California and Arizona, El Torito is trying to change its image. These days, American consumers have heightened expectations, leaving the big chain restaurants scrambling to improve their menus. At the same time, as vice president of marketing Julie Koenig explained, they need to establish a lowest common denominator for their dishes to avoid freaking out those for whom El Torito represents an exotic south-of-the-border culinary adventure.
In addition to many cocktails, we were served guacamole prepared tableside, a chorizo-spiked chicken and black bean quesadilla, a banana leaf-wrapped Oaxacan style tamale with mole coloradito, a shrimp taco, a chicken enchilada, grilled fish, pork chops with Guajillo chile sauce and a dessert called Pastel Tres Leches. As we ate, Chef Lopez told us about Oaxacan food and its complexity, indicating that El Torito did need to modify the recipes for a commercial kitchen. He also revealed that El Torito contracts with Mexican cookbook author Patricia Quintana to arrange his visits to homes in Mexico to learn their methods and recipes.
I have to say, we were all shocked. Every dish we sampled was delicious. None of us could believe this was El Torito. I've had a great many mediocre meals there, so I was astonished at how well prepared everything was. The tamale was a particular highlight, with a spicy, bright red mole on top. I came away from that meal with a different opinion about El Torito. The suits really did seem serious about changing the restaurant's image.
But I'm no fool. While it was good, I was also sitting there at a press presentation with a top executive and the corporate head chef. Again, being the cynical bastard that I am, I assumed that our meal was likely not representative of what's normally served to John and Jane Sixpack. And, wouldn't you know it, I was right.
My girl and I headed down to the El Torito in Mission Valley and ordered a few of the same items from the press dinner. The food was so awful in comparison, I found it a little hard to fathom.
The press version of the quesadilla was delicious-filled with savory chicken, queso fresco and chorizo. This version was cold, had a scant amount of chicken and none of the great chorizo flavor and was greasy. The press version of the shrimp taco was delicately seasoned and flavorful. This version, however, was salty, soggy, bland and cold. "Wow," said my date when she tasted the salsa it came with, "this tastes just like Jack-in-the-Box hot sauce."
The tamale was the closest to the press version, but it was also cold and had none of the incredible mole sauce. Instead of the sprightly, bright-red mole coloradito, it sat on top of a more typical dark mole sauce, which tasted of burned chile and little else.
You have to wonder just what the hell these guys are thinking. There's a reason genuine foodies avoid chains. When you go to a chain, you are being served some standardized version of a dish, sometimes prepared by someone who doesn't give a damn, with the decisions about what goes into it based on how much profit the chain is going to make per unit, which means cutting corners and doing things on the cheap.I was willing to give El Torito the benefit of the doubt, but such a ridiculous disparity between what they served me as a member of the press and what I was served as a regular customer is inexcusable. Changing the image they have earned through their mediocrity will require a lot more than marketing hype. Warm food would be a good start.