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Restaurant review

Look no more for 'real' Mexican food

El Toro Negro Mexican Restaurant and Grocery serves up authenticity in tasty, hearty portions. Your search ends here.

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published November 3, 2005


  photo
[Times photos: Bob Croslin]
Gorditas from El Toro Negro are plump, flavorful affairs.
Antonio Cortes, left, and Juan Cortes own El Toro Negro Restaurant and Grocery. The bodega is well-stocked with everything from chocolate to chilies.

ST. PETERSBURG - The toughest calls I get are in search of "real" Mexican food.

I know the callers want more than Taco Bell or Don Pablo, but it takes a while to find out what they mean by "real." Was the margarita bar on the beach in San Diego real to you? Or the Mom and Pop place with the toreador posters and $8 combination dinners that everyone went to in Milwaukee? A tamale stand in Fort Worth?

How about real Mexican food if you grew up in Guanajuato as Juan and Antonio Cortes?

That kind of real you can get at the brothers' El Toro Negro. Clean, friendly and colorful, but not fancy in the least. Small booths that you might find in the dining area of a bus station in Sonora.

But it doesn't matter whether your idea of autentico is a taqueria or the Zona Rosa, the cooking at El Toro Negro is Real Food in any language. Whenever I can eat in a bakery, butcher shop or grocery, I know honest ingredients are close at hand. You're in great hands here.

As in many local Mexican places, the restaurant is also a bodega, a third of it well-stocked with groceries from chocolate to candles, with plenty of beans and hominy in between. And a wall of bulk chilies, from anchos to wicked little pequins.

The food is handmade from fresh ingredients and family recipes, hearty flavors in generous portions. Call it artisan cooking and you could charge $10 more, but instead it's priced for working stiffs.

Oh yes, it's as spicy as you want.

The count on my last visit was 21 fresh salsas, each a different blend of chilies, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and vinegar. Or no tomatoes, but don't think the verdes are all mild and gentle.

Yet salsas are the least of a real Mexican kitchen. Cooking starts with cornmeal. Even before it becomes tortillas, wise hands mold it into tamales and more: thick sopes that serve as bowls to be filled with warm meats and cheeses and my favorite, gorditas.

Don't buy into Taco Bell's version; the true gordita is a little cornmeal fatso, the consistency of a scone and popped open like a pita bread. Betcha can't eat three, which is a standard helping at El Toro Negro.

With, on, or in any of these (or tacos, enchiladas or burritos), you have the spectrum of meats, chicken, pork, barbecued beef, chopped steak and al pastor, that marvelous combination of pork, pineapple and cumin. All of these are the real thing cooked whole and chopped or removed from the bone by hand; traditional cooking that's trendy at Chipotle.

A word of caution: the burritos here seem bigger too, slightly smaller than a bread box, covered with cheese and a chili gravy. Even strong diners may look away.

Better to go beyond the usual fandango for big soups or solid entrees. The best selection of soups and stews such as menudo and birria is saved for weekends, but you can almost always find pozole, that heap of hominy with big chunks of pork.

You won't have mole as satisfying elsewhere, thick walnut-brown gravy balanced between chocolate and chili and sesame seeds over moist meat, white and dark, with beans and rice. Thanksgiving come early.

The crowning taste was a surprise. Fajitas have become a fern bar staple, so I thought them a risk. Hardly. The platter did sizzle but with almost a dozen shrimp, big guys fresh off the grill, plus onions and peppers on the grill long enough to char and caramelize. Never better.

More? If you must, flan, rice pudding, sopapillas or fresh milk horchata are all fresh.

All of this is a tribute to the Cortes family, who have spent more than 10 years feeding Pinellas County, first with a branch of La Teresita around the corner on 49th Street N.

Now they've found a place for their own home cooking, Kenneth City's 54th Avenue N, the most international smorgasbord you don't know about. People who turn to the 30 blocks west of I-275 for Korean kim chi, Chinese pastries, West Indian spices, Portuguese sausage and cheese, German cold cuts as well as pumpkins and doughnuts.

Now Mexican too. All very real.

- Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com

El Toro Negro Mexican Restaurant and Grocery

5780 54th Ave. N

Kenneth City

Reservations: No

Details: Credit cards, beer, wine

Prices: $3.65 to $10.49

[Last modified February 1, 2006, 11:01:00]


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