ONCE you plow your way through the crowds struggling in vain to catch a bartender’s eye at El Toro Blanco, you emerge into a dining room that might be in Santa Barbara during the last days of the Nixon administration. Ridged orange backs on half-moon banquettes stand up like a wall of Cheetos. Glazed brick walls in red and black flank curvy 1960s plywood chairs, dangling tangerine-colored pendant lights, and matadors painted on black velvet.
El Toro Blanco’s evocation of the last days of midcentury modernism is so spirited that you expect to see women in Halston pantsuits talking about EST while flicking More cigarettes over glass ashtrays the size of dog bowls.
Restaurant designers can’t fight the smoking ban, but what they can do is get across an idea. Even if you don’t consciously register the intention of Meyer Davis Studio, the architecture firm that collaborated with El Toro Blanco’s partners, John McDonald and Josh Capon, you can still feel it. The look of El Toro Blanco is the latest sign that in New York City, Mexican cuisine is cool, of the moment and ready to be presented without quotation marks — quaint ethnic folk crafts on the earnest side or, on the sloshy side, shot-glass bandoleers and blueberry margaritas.
Admittedly, El Toro Blanco’s interior makes the point more forcefully than its menu, assembled by Mr. Capon in consultation with Scott Linquist, a chef who has wrangled tamales at Dos Caminos in New York and Border Grill in Los Angeles. The main courses are on the mild side, and the sauces rarely achieve the profound interplay of heat, bitterness, smoke, fruits, nuts and spices that can make Mexican cuisine so rewarding. Balancing that, though, is the kitchen’s emphasis on fresh flavors and its appealing lineup of street snacks and other appetizers.
Tamales were probably never meant to be fluffy, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the airy forkfuls of steamed masa in the tamale oaxaqueña, covered with sweet plantains and shredded roast chicken in red mole, or in the lighter version with corn kernels and green strips of roasted poblanos.
Empanada dough is rarely as thin and crisp as it is on the half-moons at El Toro Blanco, filled with tender short rib or with shrimp that seem to have twice their usual flavor.
I refuse to choose a favorite among the three ceviches. I’d rather just appreciate the lean, classic profile of red snapper in lime juice with jalapeño and cilantro, the depth that soy sauce brought to cubes of tuna with cucumber and avocado, and the way habaneros seemed to raise the temperature of a chilled coconut-milk broth for lobster.
Lightness has its limits: the Sonoran cheese crisp, a thin flour tortilla beneath melted cheese, roasted tomatoes and threads of roasted poblanos, had a way of staying behind on its pizza stand while other things on the table disappeared. Like, for instance, the scalding pan of chorizo fundido, in which Mexico looks Switzerland calmly in the eye and says, “I’ll see your cheese fondue and raise you some green chiles and a heap of crumbled spicy sausage.” (Switzerland folds and leaves the room.)
Tacos didn’t always deserve the extensive acreage on the menu they occupied. The tacos al pastor needed more heat to balance the sweet pineapple and unexciting pork, and whatever the chicken breast taco needed wasn’t quite supplied by a sweet tomato-chipotle sauce. And a thick wad of stewed goat, while as tender and goaty as you might hope, called out for a bright or hot counterpoint, not just cheese and beans.
But a squeeze of lime handily completed the tacos of lightly fried cod with slivers of radish, or better yet the ones with charred but still tender octopus tentacles that curled out of their folded tortillas like question marks that are really invitations.
None of this is likely to alter your perceptions of Mexico, but put a few of these snacks together with a margarita on the rocks — the best, El Toro, is sweetened with orange juice and agave syrup, not liqueur — and the night will cruise along like a 707 to Acapulco.
The energy can flag if you strike out for the bigger plates, though not if you order the lobster Puerto Nuevo, served split on its back with orange legs pointing in all directions. In the town of Puerto Nuevo, the lobster would be pan-fried in lard. El Toro Blanco grills it instead, and while I won’t endorse this compromise, I have to admit that the melted butter seasoned with ground chiles de árbol made me miss the pork fat a little less.
Still, at times the restaurant seems to play to timid palates. The mole coloradito, which typically draws intrigue from cloves and cinnamon, is something of a fruit bomb, its sweetness landing with a thud on roast chicken breast that can tend toward dryness. A tomatillo salsa, one of three served with the bright guacamole, also gets more sugar than it can handle.
Veracruz-style fish, usually cooked in a Mexican-Mediterranean blend of tomatoes, capers and olives, was pan-seared instead; the tomatoes, now more condiment than sauce, came across as strictly Italian. Grilled swordfish repeated the pattern: simply cooked seafood in the center of the plate, tomatoes on the side, Mexico disappearing around the bend.
Most of the desserts won’t bring it back, not the simple-minded apple empanada or the tapioca pudding or the chocolate tart. But a tres leches cake had a properly heart-stopping level of dairy overkill, and churros, crunchy with cinnamon sugar and scorchingly hot, were satisfying with or without a dip into dulce de leche sauce.
Mr. Capon and Mr. McDonald are the creative minds behind Lure Fishbar and B&B Winepub, both of which manage to conjure quintessentially downtown scenes without benefit of a notably progressive menu. That these two men saw a future for themselves in Mexican food may not do much to move the cuisine forward. But style can have a substance of its own, and this may be the case when two restaurateurs convince New Yorkers that the centerpiece of a fun and stylish night on the town can be a plate of tamales.