The margarita is a staple at every Mexican restaurant from here to Jalisco but as I savored the version of the drink served at El Torito (1401 S. Federal Hwy., Pompano Beach, 954-725-3339), I wondered exactly what elevated it to such slow-sipped perfection. I called our waitress over and asked her what brand of tequila the barkeep used. "It's house," she said, grinning. "El Torito."
I pictured a Mexican abuelita, hunched over as she shreds and presses bits of fresh-roasted agave maguey into juice, to be fermented and twice distilled over a hot stove before aging months in oaken casks.
My head cleared fast. At $5.50 for two (always two-for-one) of these babies, I'm pretty sure there's no granny in the kitchen crafting home-brewed tequila. Anyway, judging by the crowd of Mexican émigrés drinking shots of Herradura and Cazadores at the cantina-style bar, El Torito is doing something that evokes mama Mexico. Come any weekend night and you'll sit in a dining hall alive with patrons singing requiems to long-lost loves and traveling cantantes serenading couples and families all busily devouring traditional plates priced less than a ticket to the movies.
We'd arrived early Sunday evening, and there was no music (at least not yet). The hostess led us past the murals of matadors dancing with bulls to an intimate back room lined with red and green windows shaded by plantation blinds. Our margaritas were doing the trick, so we decided to indulge in the sinful-sounding queso fundido ($7.95) a dip of handmade cheese, red pepper, garlic, chorizo, and fresh oregano and an order of grilled chicken quesadillas ($8.95). The queso was an unfortunate mess: The cheese had separated, leaving a runny pool of oil on top and permeating the whole bowl with a burned taste. The quesadillas, though, were savory, inch-thick wedges, buttery and crisp and overflowing with juicy, chopped chicken breast slathered in jack cheese and spicy chipotle-adobo sauce. I swiped the pieces through a mound of garlicky guacamole until they were gone.
Sopes sinaloa ($9.95) were fat little tortillas of pan-fried masa topped with beans, cheese, shredded chicken or beef similar to Colombian arepas or Salvadoran pupusas. El Torito's were fresh and soft, like flattened baby tamales. We ordered one with chicken and one with beans; the latter came ladled with a rich ancho chile sauce that reminded us both of mole. My girlfriend's plate of huevos rancheros ($7.95) was the clear winner. Three eggs fried, crisp at the edges, the yolks only slightly soft sat on a freshly made corn tortilla smothered in roasted-pepper ranchero sauce, melted cheese, and bits of salty fried chorizo. Simple, heart-warming, Mexican soul food.
For dessert, a plate of sopepilla ($2.50) hit all the right notes. Golden fried dough was drizzled with chocolate, caramel, and honey, then dusted with cinnamon and served alongside vanilla ice cream. We treated the pieces like chips to the ice cream's salsa and forked up the remaining dollops of cinnamon-coated honey just as music started to waft in from the dining hall. Our waitress (exceptionally friendly and courteous) returned to help us settle up, and we scampered off to the bar in search of our tequila-soaked granny and another round.
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