"El Torito Grill offers Latin fusion food in familiar locale

My friends were late. We were meeting to celebrate a birthday at El Torito Grill, the new upscale Mexican fusion restaurant that’s opened in the old Keystone Grill location on 86th Street. Handing my hat and gloves over to a friendly but persistent woman at the coat check, I wondered if I’d ever checked a coat at a Mexican restaurant in my life. Probably not. Spying a seat in the vestibule, I slumped into a pile of silky red pillows to take in the place while I waited.

Ah, how the Indy food scene is changing! Before we could blink, another one of our culinary institutions was reimagined and reinhabited by an out-of-state chain. That two of Indy’s most preeminent restaurants — first Something Different, now Keystone Grill — have become chic Latin American franchises in less than a year smells a bit of conspiracy. Maybe we’re the test market for a trend? But with nearly 100 Mexican-owned taquerias and cantinas in town, do we really need a California-based corporation to show us what Mexican food is all about?

Looking around, I wondered if any of those taquerias was as bustling as this place on a Sunday evening. Indeed, when the next customer came in, she asked the hostess if it was a busy night. “Not really,” she said, escorting a party of three to a side room packed with families and holiday shoppers. Behind a metal cutout of a tropical tree, the bar buzzed with activity. One woman placed round after round of white dough onto a space age contraption labeled “Doughpro,” pulling down a formidable lever to produce dozens of tortillas another woman retrieved from a lazy Susan.

All in all, El Torito has taken well to the environs it has inherited. Frankly, I always thought the décor at Keystone Grill, with rooms themed around a fireplace or the Indy 500, was a little gaudy and over the top. The yellow stucco walls and red tile roof seem much more at home in a casual Mexican eatery; now, you’d hardly guess this was once a high-end seafood draw where diners were expected to dress to the nines.

But not all of the upscale trappings have vanished. Coming in from the cold, my friends asked how I’d gotten past the valet parking guy. “I just drove around him,” I said, turning to the hostess, who quickly ushered us to our seats.

Almost before we could tuck ourselves into a booth, an employee had rolled a bulky cart up to our table and was insisting we try their famous guacamole. By now, the “guacamole cart” is practically a trope at this style of restaurant, the new century’s Caesar salad or chateaubriand. It means El Torito can charge $7.99 for guacamole, but there’s no question it is fresh. Curiously, the man mixing our guac asked us if we’d like parmesan cheese in ours. One of those fusion elements, perchance?

But things are a little different at El Torito, as we’d quickly discover. The point of eschewing your neighborhood Mexican joint for a place like El Torito is that you’ll get things that are just a little off the page, served with a little more care. Margaritas, for instance, come with anything from blue Curacao and Grand Marnier to Chambord or Amaretto. Those fresh tortillas I’d seen being made arrived more as bread would at an American eatery — complete with honey butter.

Tortilla chips — here dyed a rainbow of festive colors and renamed tostaditas — come not in your typical basket but stacked in a neat row and nestled inside an artfully folded linen napkin. Rousing them from their little trundle bed, we made short work of the guacamole, chunky with just the right spice though perhaps lacking a bit in salt and lime juice.

Additional appetizers aim beyond your typical salsas and dips. Rich and delicate, a lobster tamale cake ($7.99) had all of the virtues of a crab cake, though this was almost more delicious because of its sauces — butter laced with chipotle and jalapeño, a red pepper puree, tropical salsa and cotija cheese. Definitely a decent start to the meal.

For entrees, carnitas, from a list of “Mexican specialties,” were a tad dry but quite flavorful and served with a wonderfully piquant pickled onion — sliced paper thin and with just a prickling bite of habañero. Vibrantly green, cilantro-spiked rice, a sweet corn cake and a steaming bowl of black bean soup all came on the side. A combination platter ($9.99) included some quite blackened steak tacos with two tasty chicken taquitos and a chicken enchilada in a smoky red sauce.

The surprise of the evening came in the form of the barbecue chicken tostada ($10.99), a somewhat mundane-sounding salad that was perhaps the largest item we were served. Atop a giant triangular tortilla chip sat a huge pile of crunchy shredded romaine, crisp jicama, beans, corn and tortilla strips, tossed in both salsa and a barbecue-ranch dressing, and topped with tender chunks of smoky chicken. This was a bargain that helped make for a nice lunch the next day.

Birthdays don’t go unnoticed at Mexican chains, and at meal’s end a little troupe of employees tromped in to chant, “We heard it was somebody’s birthday ...” before presenting us with a complimentary flan and the peanut tostada ($4.29) we had ordered. The flan was super rich and creamy, definitely not light and eggy as some versions, with a very nice burnt caramel sauce and whipped cream. Häagen-Dazs cappuccino ice cream topped the crunchy peanut-flecked shell of the tostada, an interesting, if subtle flavor combo that was a nice alternative to more typical fried ice cream.

Though we pined a bit for the hominess of those local taquerias, El Torito did offer some things we wouldn’t get there, and prices were, for the most part, surprisingly modest at such a formerly exclusive locale. Here’s to a city with Mexican food at all ends of the spectrum — and to a multitude of tastes.

El Torito Grill

8650 Keystone at the Crossing



Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Sunday: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

(brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m.)

Food : Three and a hlaf stars

Atmosphere : Three and a half stars

Service : Three and a half stars



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