Tony Camilleri has worked in hotels, clubs and a handful of restaurants in the Hartford area in his quarter-century in the hospitality business. He recently spent three years as the senior executive chef at Barcelona Wine Bar in West Hartford and brought along the familiar approach of tapas and shareable plates when he opened Toro Loco Mezcaloteca in Farmington in mid-January. Toro Loco occupies the building that was vacated when Wood-n-Tap moved a mile down Route 4 to take over the former Apricots space.
“The concept honestly was something I knew the area didn’t have,” Camilleri says. “There’s a lot of Italian, pizza, Chinese up and down this whole general area, but nobody really does anything as far as Spanish tapas, Spanish-Mexican-style stuff.”
Camilleri says a ton of work was done on the interior in the 13 weeks leading up to the opening, with family, friends, and business partner Stretch Altenhein, owner of Nautilus Tattoo in Newington, all helping with the buildout. Wood-n-Tap had been tucked into the acute angle between Farmington Avenue and Brickyard Road since 2004, so Camilleri felt he needed to freshen up the place. “We wanted to have a clean look, as far away from what the Wood-n-Tap style was,” Camilleri says. “Everybody knew this place was the Wood-n-Tap for 16 years, so they’re gonna have a certain perception when they come in.” Red accenting is prevalent throughout the space, particularly at the bar and on the mantel over the fireplace, in addition to an abundance of candles with an artificial flicker that provides nice flair. The ceiling over the bar looks like the sole of a Louboutin.
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The foundation of the Toro Loco menu is the signature corn tortilla, with the entire process, basically everything except growing the corn, taking place in house. Camilleri’s team cooks corn imported from Mexico, grinds it, turns it into masa, forms the tortillas and tosses them on the grill.
We order a flight of three tacos — beef, chorizo, and Tuko’s taco, a special creation named in memory of Camilleri’s girlfriend’s dog Vylette, which was nicknamed Tuko. “All the ingredients on there,” Camilleri says, “those are all Tuko’s favorite things to eat.” A dog’s favorite foods — guess that’s how you end up with a crispy chicken taco with a big slab of turkey bacon, carrot chimichurri and Smartfood popcorn. But Tuko clearly had a well-developed palate. It’s my favorite of the three, even with the super-tender beef and impressive housemade chorizo being worthy contenders.
The only downside of the corn tortilla being the foundation of the menu is when you find cracks. On first bite it’s a taco, second bite a sandwich, third bite a salad. Part of that is the inherent difficulty of making a sturdy corn tortilla in the first place, part is the generous portion of ingredients heaped on top. I have zero complaints about the taste and appreciate the presentation, and I’m not above finishing off a taco with a fork, but it’s not ideal. And $22 for a flight of three seems a little steep. You can get 15 damn good tacos from a truck on Long Wharf for the same price. Understandably, a sit-down restaurant in Farmington and a food truck in New Haven is comparing apples and oranges, but it’s also comparing tacos and tacos.
Staying with the flight-of-three theme for salsa, we choose the fire-roasted ranchera (regular), fruta (mango, pineapple) and maiz (corn, blackbeans), along with an order of guacamole. The salsa portions are large for a flight and very tasty, but the ratio of chips provided is way too low. More are brought immediately upon request but that gap needs to be narrowed from the start. And while the guacamole is perfectly fine, the server’s proclamation that it’s the “best guacamole you’ve ever had in your life” sets it up for disappointment.
Chicken tortilla soup is hearty and flavorful, strongly resembling a chili, with fresh avocado under the surface and a nice cotija cheese on top. Camilleri says that the street corn esquites, a solid dish topped with chili-lime aioli and cotija, is served off the cob so it can easily be shared. My personal favorite among the small plates is the molotes, potato- and cheese-stuffed crispy masa with an avocado crema.
The tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails we sample are quality and refreshing, although a little too ice-forward for my liking. For dessert, the cinnamon-sugar churros remind me of fried dough from a country fair, in a good way, and the Mexican chocolate is rich and ripe for dipping.
Camilleri says he would like Toro Loco to be “that local place,” a hangout that’s also family friendly. As we’re about to call it a night, the sound of breaking glass emanates from the bar and someone in the booth next to us yells out, “mazel tov!” Wish I thought of that. “It’s unpretentious,” Camilleri says. “It just remains casual and laid back. It’s a fun time.”
Toro Loco Mezcaloteca
1274 Farmington Ave., Farmington
Price range: Snacks $3-$11, tapas $7-$12, veggie tapas $4-$8, tacos $7-$9, paella $30-$42, desserts $5-$7.
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 4-10 p.m., Fri. 4-11 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Ambiance: Camilleri’s goal of Toro Loco becoming “that local place” should be attainable. It’s a fun and inviting atmosphere inside with a soon-to-be-open patio overlooking the pond out back.
Food: The Mexican- and Spanish-influenced menu features a wide variety of old favorites and unique finds. There are easily 10 items I didn’t order that I would love to try, especially the fundido and paella.
Service: Fantastic. Our server went over the whole menu, made recommendations and was attentive throughout. There’s also valet parking, as finding a spot in this tiny lot is akin to hitting the lotto.