920 Old Country Rd, Garden City
(516) 222-0060 | tocolocantina.com
Tocolo Cantina might be the least typical shopping center restaurant on Long Island—and that’s a good thing. Most restaurants in shopping centers are chain operations with predictable computer generated menus. Tocolo Cantina is just the opposite. It’s an upbeat, casual, one-of-a-kind festive restaurant serving fresh, California-style Mexican food. It’s a truly modern Mexican eatery with a unique personality all its own.
Located in the Gallery at Westbury Plaza in Garden City, Tocolo is a fiesta of Latin music, loud televisions, an open kitchen, outdoor dining that spills onto the sidewalk and most of all, a creative menu that includes refreshing spins on basic Mexican dishes. Alexis Samayoa, the executive chef and co-owner sees to that. He’s a veteran big city chef who earned his culinary stripes at Manhattan’s modern Mexican venues as well as the now defunct WD-5, which was one of the most adventurous restaurants in New York.
His innovative bent is apparent from the get-go with a small bowl of guacamole Atun ($14). It packs the usual Jalapeno and cilantro yet is a bit more unusual with its topping of sliced radishes, lively Fresno chilies and a smattering of tuna accompanied by a basket of noteworthy house-made chips. The crock of warm tortillas that escorts the queso fundido ($9 to $12) are also house-made, the product of a woman in the kitchen who churns out fresh tortillas all day long. The generously portioned queso fundido is an appetizer of melted, snappy Chihuahua cheese made from cow’s milk, crowned with a centerpiece of short rib picadillo and a scattering of raisins and pine nuts. Al pastor tacos of Berkshire pork belly with charred pineapple, onions and cilantro ($15) were tasty but tough. Better was a lamb taco in the barbocoa style, bolstered by cheese and salsa ($18).
Among the house specialties was polo asado, a juicy, king-sized half chicken atop a roasted corn salad ($24). Commendable as it was, a better way to go is to sample a number of the diverse small dishes rather than filling up on a sizable main course.
Desserts to display some flair ($8). Churros are served with goat milk caramel, arroz con leche (runny rice pudding) is speckled with raisins and enhanced by passion fruit caramel and even an ordinary, mundane fruit salad boasted mint, guajillo oil and chile ancho. The tres leches cake was surprisingly dry.
Surprising too was the breakdown between the desserts and dishes that proceeded them, especially when compared to what had been swift, knowing service. Among the beverages was a very ordinary pitcher of sangria ($35) and extraordinary, remarkably rich Mexican hot chocolate ($5).