The New York import lasted just under a year in Pittsburgh’s North Side.
From the Terminal Buildings to the Hot Metal Bridge and from the banks of the Mon to the top of Billy Buck Hill, tortilla shells have flown at half mast around the South Side during an extended mourning period for the recent and abrupt loss last month of gourmet taqueria and 15203 favorite Yo Rita (trust me on this -- I live there and we practically needed crisis counselors on a neighborhood Facebook forum).
Alas, while Ye Olde Birmingham is now bereft of a spot for chichi tacos comprised of poached salmon, seitan, or chorizo and a dippy egg, El Lado Sur still has numerous options for south-of-the-border sustenance.
In less than a year in its brick and mortar location on East Carson Street, La Palapa has emerged to serve arguably some of the best traditional Mexican in the city; local chain Emiliano's is dependably decent; the AMPD group will open their second Steel Cactus location later this year.
And in early March, a sister location of Erie's El Toro Loco -- which sounds like a name for an unhinged Pedro Alvarez -- opened near South Side Works.
Located in the historical home of the old Mill Site Tavern, El Toro Loco offers a huge selection of Mexican standards and specialties. I note the size of the menu because as often happens at establishments with an oversized slate, some items are prepared quite well and others not so much, which was the case here.
For instance, on a recent visit, my Ceviche appetizer ($7.99) was quite good. A generous helping of diced fish and shrimp in a zesty lime juice with added bite from the tomatoes, onions and cilantro, and cooled with fresh slices of avocado on top, this could be a meal on its own.
Conversely, my dinner platter of Carnitas Tapiatas -- spiced pork chunks, served with refried beans, Spanish rice, pico de gallo and warmed tortillas ($11.99) -- which although filling, was a little on the bland side and not flavorful enough.
During a follow-up visit with a co-worker, our appetizer of Chimi-Rolls -- mini-chimichangas of corn, black beans, shredded chicken, bell peppers onions and tomatoes, served with a queso sauce ($7.99) -- sounded like a winner but aside from the crispy fried shell lacked flavor.
Our dinner entrees proved to be better selections.
I enjoyed the El Sinaloense: chunks of grilled steak, topped with chorizo and cheese. Also served with refried beans, Spanish rice, pico de gallo, guacamole and warmed tortillas ($12.99), this had the flavor burst I was looking for.
Of his El Toro Loco Seafood Quesadilla (filled with shrimp, crabmeat and scallops; $12.99), my co-worker said it "could have used a little more spicy kick to it," but that he "liked the creamy cheese spread and the variety and abundance of seafood that filled the grilled wrap."
Nonetheless, he left very pleased, and very full.
The prices are reasonable, the service friendly.
Although colorfully painted and decorated with wagon wheels and the requisite sombreros, the place looks a bit vacant, probably because the otherwise handsome, expansive wooden bar is bare -- no bottles of tequila, no cerveza on tap.
The red tape of the PLCB has made El Toro Loco's liquor license approval thus far as elusive as a matador's cape, but that is expected to change very soon, an employee said.
A decade or more ago, a place like El Toro Loco would've been cause for celebration simply owing to a dearth of decent Mexican cuisine in Pittsburgh. That's simply not the case anymore.
But that's no poor reflection on El Toro Loco. Rather it's a good thing in terms of the increasing dining options for all of us gringo Pittsburghers (Grin-zers? Yinz-gos?) out there.
El Toro Loco is at 2512 E. Carson St., South Side Flats; 412-431-1100 or eltorolocomex.com.
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