As I was walking up to El Torito recently I noticed a fence around the old motel next door to it with a sign announcing a new boutique motel arriving later this year. And while it is a surfer themed motel and part of the evolution of the area, it freaked me out a bit that the gentrification is inching it’s way towards one of my favorite old-school plazas on Coast Highway that includes El Torito Market and Swell Stuff. Both are independent, locally owned and full of character and worth supporting. Swell Stuff is always my first stop when wetsuit shopping for a potential killer deal on a used suit and my go-to for wetsuit repair.
El Torito recently underwent a renovation that opened up the kitchen, expanded their menu, and now offers a sit down dining area. All this was done without taking away from the original charm and authenticity of the place. There is a heavy seafood influence on the new menu with fish platters that include seafood soup, cod, snapper, sea bass ahi and my favorite, shrimp a la cucaracha. Street tacos and burritos are also well represented and they also added Thrifty Ice Cream by the scoop to enjoy after dinner. So for your dine-in or carry out Mexican food, El Torito should definitely be added to your list of options.
My favorite part of the El Torito experience is to plan a Mexican themed meal and buy all the ingredients there. Something about hitting up an authentic local market that is not impeccably merchandised and full of trendy new age products is very refreshing. It’s also a good sign when a good proportion of the customers are Mexican.
I always start at the meat counter that has a nice variety of meat and chicken, including the delicious pre-marinated adobo pork that fries up quickly and can be put in just about any bread or tortilla product for a quick, delicious meal I’ve also ordered up a 5-pound pork shoulder that I cubed, seared, and then braised in my crock-pot for 4 hours in a combination of Mexican coke and orange juice. They become so tender and flavorful and can be easily shredded and the resulting carnitas were spectacular. All the standard cuts are available and many are already cut into sizes that are ready to add your favorite spices to and throw on the grill or sauté.
And speaking of spices, El Torito has that covered and then some with many favorites and some of the more obscure varieties. Dried chilies and chili pods are represented nicely and there is even a modest fresh produce section. I also counted at least a dozen varieties of tortillas, including a couple that did include lard, a must-have ingredient in my tortillas.
The coolers at El Torito include prepared ceviche, salsas and plenty of Mexican dairy products. Beer and wine are available and really, what Mexican meal would be complete without cold cerveza right? And I’m not talking hoppy, crafty beer here; I’m talking crisp and refreshing lager with a lime. There is a time and place for crafty beer and I’m thinking this is not one of them. Mexican soda is available and we all know by now the Mexican Coke story. But did you know that Coke converted to high-fructose corn syrup for Mexico for cost reasons and is only exporting the cane sugar variety now due to the demand here? Crazy but true! A huge variety of Jarritos soda is represented and has been called the national soft drink of Mexico. Exports to the United States began in 1989 and by 1997; Jarritos became the most popular soft drink in the U.S. among Latino consumers. It is estimated that 6000 bottles of Jarritos are shipped across the border each minute…pull that fact out at your next cocktail party!
There is a lot more to explore at El Torito Market and definitely a local business worth supporting. The parking in the plaza can be tough, but easy options are on Coast Highway or across the street on the dirt next to the railroad tracks. They don’t have a website but are located at 948 N. Coast Highway 101 or (760) 436-4973