At the Mall, Mexican Cuisine Beyond Chipotle
A Review of Tocolo Cantina in Garden City
By KURT WENZELFEB. 28, 2015
Malls are garishly commercial but a necessary suburban evil, many of us think, as we wince at the prospect of eating a “serious” meal in one. But before we swear off mall dining forever, there is Tocolo Cantina, in the Gallery at Westbury Plaza, to consider.
This three-month-old Mexican restaurant is in a beautiful, soaring space with a retro-chic décor of turquoise and aquamarine hues that feels a bit like 1950s Hollywood. The handsome 10-seat bar is stocked high with designer tequilas and mezcals; if you want to experience great Mexican spirits, this is the place to do it.
Guacamole is made to order at the bar. I’m not sure this dish can get much better than Tocolo’s “atún,” version, with diced raw tuna, radishes, red chiles and peppers atop a mash of fresh avocados. Both the atún and the classic guacamole, served with onions, jalapeño and cilantro, come with perfectly executed homemade corn chips.
Homemade is a recurring theme here; everything that can be made by hand is, including the corn tortillas, which were outstanding. Chef Alexis Samayoa, who worked under Alex Stupak at Empellón Taqueria and Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York City, is enjoying his first run as both a co-owner and an executive chef, but his hand feels sure. He has created a menu that offers a delicate balance of innovative Mexican and the more crowd-pleasing cantina-style cuisine.
Ceviche, a traditional Mexican dish of raw fish in a citrus marinade, is offered several ways. Our favorite was the hamachi (similar to tuna), the flesh buttery and tender and served with gooseberries. The snapper ceviche was also very good.
The tacos were all excellent, especially the Al Pastor, which features Berkshire pork belly and charred pineapple. Quesadillas are not easy to make exciting, but Mr. Samayoa tries nobly by using blue corn, chiles and Chihuahua cheese, a cow’s-milk cheese with a slightly tangy, white-Cheddar character. The more adventurous can order the queso fundido with short rib picadillo. Fundido, or “flaming cheese,” is a traditional dish similar to fondue, here topped with braised short ribs, raisins and pine nuts. It is also served with a steaming crock of tortillas, therefore satisfying your taco and quesadilla cravings simultaneously.
The “especiales de la casa,” or house specials, are served in generous portions, and those who prefer to sample many dishes will be fine with sharing a plate with two or three people. Aesthetically, too, the house specials can be a little unwieldy; the four large head-on prawns in the “gambas asadas,” a menu item at the time of our visit, looked a little lonely atop a huge pile of green rice. The medallions of grilled hanger steak also seemed a bit lost amid what seemed like a bushel of maitake mushrooms. Still, there was no arguing with the flavors, the steak tender and served with dollops of a deliciously spicy chipotle tomatillo purée, and the green rice accompanying the gambas drizzled with the same mezcal and garlic sauce used to sauté the fish.
As for sides, don’t overlook the phenomenal yucca fries, crunchy to the bite and served with a chipotle mayonnaise. All of the house cocktails we tried were fun and inspired. A grilled-lime margarita had a fuller, smokier character than its archetype, and the mango habanero margarita was a firecracker of spiciness.
A word here about service. It is mostly outstanding: The attentive, well-trained staff is more than happy to guide you through the sometimes esoteric menu. One night, however, after the chef and the general manager left, things turned lax. Our server was suddenly replaced, and now taking our order seemed like a nuisance. Dirty plates weren’t cleared, and we ate our desserts (churros and chocolate and a tres leches cake, both excellent) amid the wreckage of earlier courses. Even as we paid the check, hour-old plates remained.
Nevertheless I’m ready to call the incident an anomaly and surrender to this exciting and sophisticated new restaurant. But be forewarned: Chipotle this is not. Chef Samayoa aims to please, but there are some things he won’t do, such as make you a chicken quesadilla on request. “Sometimes you just have to say no,” he told me recently by phone.
It’s an understandable position. Food this carefully prepared should not be open to public interpretation. If you’re looking for more than cookie-cutter Mexican fare, the Gallery at Westbury Plaza might just be your best bet.
920 Old Country Road
THE SPACE A single, soaring room, sleek and sophisticated, decorated with a soft Yucatán color palette. An impeccably designed restaurant that seats 82 people.
THE CROWD Mostly young professionals and families. The thumping nightclub soundtrack will be a turnoff to some diners. The staff is knowledgeable and highly attentive, with the occasional lapse.
THE BAR Seating for 12. Specialty cocktails, $12 to $15. Sangria, $9 a glass; $35 per pitcher. Domestic and international beers, draft and bottles, $7. Wines by the glass, $9 to $12; by the bottle, $35 to $42. There is a large selection of rare tequilas and mezcals.
THE BILL Small plates, $8 to $12. Larger plates, $18 to $31. Sides, $5 to $6.
WHAT WE LIKED Atún guacamole; hamachi and snapper ceviche; kale salad; queso fundido with short rib picadillo; gambas asadas; shrimp and lamb tacos; hanger steak; yucca fries; tres leches cake; churros and chocolate.
IF YOU GO Lunch: daily, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner: Sundays through Thursdays, 5 to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, until 11 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Huge parking lot adjacent to the restaurant.