Being a native New Yorker, I relish in our superior pizza, bagels, and all things Italian-made. However, our Mexican food leaves something to be desired. Always jealous of our LA office, nachos, fajitas, queso, just cannot compare. Recently opened in the Westbury Plaza in Long Island, Tocolo Cantina, invited me to a meal, and I jumped at the prospect of having actually good Mexican food. Making a date night out of it, I grabbed my #hopelessromantic boyfriend along with me, which turned out to be a great idea for portion control alone! For NYC natives, we can’t wait for summer to make a day out of it by going to Jones Beach early in the day, getting our shop on at the Bloomingdales Outlets, and then satisfying that summer Margarita and Mexican craving at Tocolo again.
We were immediately greeted by hostess Samantha, who sat us down and gave us her margarita recommendations. First was the Grilled Lime Margarita rinsed out with Mezcal, which is a smokey tequila, grilled limes and then muddled, finished with fresh squeezed lime juice and tequila. Anything but your average low-grade margarita. For some "spice in your life,” they have the Mango Habanero tequila, sweet and spicy, gotta love that kick on the way down.
Samantha then filled us in on the history of the place: “The reason we exist is we felt like you can get great Mexican food on the West Coast but not on the East Coast, particularly on Long Island. If you look around the restaurant, we tried to style it as a Californian Mexican Cantina. If you look at the photos around, we hired a photographer and took pictures of different murals and buildings in the Mission District in San Francisco. We wanted to invoke the feeling and colors of the district, greens and yellows, warm inviting feeling. All of the tiles you see around the restaurant are hand-made tiles. If you go into our restrooms, some of the best artwork is in there. The women’s has the best picture in the whole place. Everything is made fresh in house, the tortillas are, there is a place in Corona, Queens called Nextimal and they make their own corn masa and they deliver to us daily. Maria's job is just to press and make tortillas all day. ‘The blanket of all food.’ Start prepping at 8:00 a.m, 25 different peppers, there is no shortcuts, all salsas are pressed down and layered with flavors. Sangria is made fresh every single day. Fresh fruit, put some extra love in it.”
With every Mexican restaurant, you can't escape a guacamole and here is where they step it up. While it is always freshly made, they have a chef that only makes just that, served with house made chips. The fresh jalapeños and diced onions elevated it from your run-of-the-mill guacamole. For the health conscience, we were served the mixed salad greens featuring hearts of palm flown in from Hawaii and a delicate avocado relish, which complemented the roasted corn.
The Ceviche was made with delicate Snapper and the verde sauce was made with Avocado. The chef says it shows his creativity and roots.
Next was the Fundido - green chorizo cheese dip. The sausage is also made in house. It’s green from the cilantro, you aren't going to see that everywhere. Here is where they hit the mark most on elevating a classic queso dip and making it their own. If we didn't know we had more food coming, we would have ordered seconds in a flash. Best dish of the night!
We were then served three of their tacos. After trying all of them, it became a debate at the table about which one was our favorite. If we had to choose one to win out, it would be the Baja Fish Taco, battered in a vodka - yes, vodka - tempura topped with a red Fresno lime mayo, which is their most popular item on the menu. The runner-up was the Lamb Taco, prepared Barbacoa style, wrapped in banana leaves and agave for six hours, topped with queso fresco and salsa roja. Order both and decide for yourselves.
Next up was the Fideo. It’s similar to a paella, and has the green chorizo in it. It is filled with fried noodles, all the shellfish - shrimp, clams, and mussels, on top. It’s something the chef is very passionate about.
At the end of the night, they were giving each customer a shot of Mexican Hot Chocolate along with a postcard of the exquisite artwork seen around the restaurant. We were able to talk to Samantha a little more, as well as Chef Alexis Samayoa, and get some more information about the restaurant.
Labeling Men: What kind of people do you see coming here?
Samantha: We have definitely been connecting with foodies, people who are coming here and appreciating the food. We think we are very traditional but not typical Mexican restaurant that is out on Long Island, so some people are a little confused when they come in; they are used to chips and salsa on the table, hard shelled tacos, nachos. So people who end up tasting the food are loving it and they are our regulars who come back and appreciate the food and the experience. It’s casual, the wait staff - all beautiful by design - are casually dressed, we want people to relax, enjoy some cocktails, enjoy the food. We are just trying to be an amazing place where you can come on a Wednesday night with your friends, family night, with your boyfriend or girlfriend, couples, everybody!
L.M: How did the idea come to you to open this?
Chef Samayoa: Mexican happened when I started off on my own with aTaqueria. I fell into it and it’s easy for me to understand Latin food, so I'm keeping with it for now.
L.M: What are your favorite dishes to make?
Chef Samayoa: It is the Tlayuda [described on the menu as toasted corn and black bean tortilla, refried beans, queso fresco, queso Chihuahua, crema, shredded romaine, salsa roja and avocado]
L.M: And why is that?
Chef Samayoa: It’s one of our most simple, yet complex dishes. It’s a big tortilla, made with refried beans, and it’s masa, it’s a big chip and it’s covered with shredded romaine, salsa roja, avocados, onions, cilantro, and queso fresco. It’s one of those things where they flavor profile is there but it looks so simple and that’s one of my favorite things. It’s so simple but it’s so good.
L.M: How do you hope to distinguish yourselves from other Mexican restaurants, not only on Long Island, but in the city as well?
Chef Samayoa: Well the one thing I want out of the restaurant is I want to build up trust in the community. I want them to understand the food first before it starts getting more difficult for them. But I do want it to be complex for everybody, I do want it to stand out, to not be like the regular guy. The only competitor I really have out here is Besito and I've seen their menu and I just don't want to be simple, I don't want be like a regular restaurant. That's why I try and do different things.
L.M: It's not your typical fajitas or nachos.
Chef Samayoa: I don't want somebody to come in here and ask for nachos or burritos. It’s something I want to stay away from, that people have bastardized so much because that’s what they come to expect out of Mexican food. I want it to be where you enjoy the food, there is a lot of thought behind it, and you see that it’s food that you won't get out of a box.
The gracious hostess Samantha mentioned that they were planning on doing a "Drink Education" class for patrons to learn more about their wide variety of tequilas and how to pair them with different meals.
They also plan on changing some of the menu four times a year.
Visit Tocolo Cantina at 920 Old Country Road in Garden City, NY and look at their full menu at www.tocolocantina.com
Interview and review by Nisim Frank