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EL TORITO GRILL OFFERS QUITE A FEW SURPRISES

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Why are all these snappy dressers crowding into an El Torito? Why is there a mob in the bar waiting 40 minutes for a table on a Thursday night? Are they all dying for Cadillac Margaritas, or possibly El Torito’s new discovery, the Blue Margarita?

No. You see, this is not just an El Torito; it is the El Torito Grill (or G-R-I-L-L, as it is emphatically spelled on the door). Yes, you can get Cadillac Margaritas, but the menu doesn’t look like any El Torito you ever saw. Suddenly I have an answer to my question of a couple of weeks back: Where are the hip Nuevo Mexican/New Southwest Cuisine restaurants of Orange County?

I also have an answer to the question of what has become of the excellent chef David Wilhelm, whose old restaurant, Pave, was just a few blocks away from the Fashion Island location of the G-R-I-L-L. This is where Wilhelm has landed, and the result is remarkably daring for the El Torito chain, which made its reputation serving reliable but unsurprising “Sonora-style” dishes.

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Here we have a style far removed from El Torito’s plush booth/Old Mexico ambience: spare, quasi-whitewashed Southwestern decor (lots of desert plants, a few tasteful Indian designs painted here and there, the odd Navajo rug), an aroma--sometimes, actually, a visibility-lowering haze--from a mesquite grill, and a fascinating machine that right in front of your eyes stamps balls of dough into tortillas for cooking on a huge revolving comal.

Needless to say, the tortillas you get are always hot from the griddle, and they are good flaky ones (I must complain that sometimes they smell a shade doughy, though, and I wish corn tortillas were available as well). They are served with a salsa of serrano peppers, cilantro, onion and what the waiters say is “bean vinegar.” It’s a well-mannered little sauce with a slight smoky flavor because some of the ingredients are actually grilled. Tortillas also come with a decidedly hot plain tomato sauce of the traditional El Torito stamp and a ball of honey-orange butter.

This is just the beginning, because there are nice little touches everywhere. Entrees are liable to come with a delicious pudding-like “corn cake,” rather like a slightly sweet spoon bread (with some whole corn kernels in it), and absolutely stunning refried black beans: rich, faintly tart, full of concentrated bean flavor.

The greatest departure from El Torito tradition is the corn flour pasta, rather like fettuccine alfredo with corn flavor and a slight red pepper bite. I couldn’t get enough of it. Blue corn duck tamalitos are a little novel, too, small tamales with a strong corn flavor and a judiciously hot and terrifically rich sauce (quite unlike the austere chipotle pepper sauce Wilhelm used on his duck tamales at Pave).

Even more familiar dishes are likely to have a twist. The chile relleno is not covered with batter (all to the good, I say--that batter basically clutters up a dish that should concentrate on a good fresh pepper). The nachos are blue corn chips with a layer of those great refried beans underneath the cheese. Likewise, the burritos always have black refried beans aboard. The tacos are always soft, as for my money all real tacos are, filled with grilled beef, chicken or fish. They come with a little cup of exquisite plain boiled beans, the kind that are usually watery and dull.

Daily specials tend to be rotisserie meats served in a thin, plain red pepper sauce. One day it was robust, muttony lamb with a bit of hominy strewn on it. These grilled items always come with a big handful of fascinating sweet potato chips--that’s right, chips made from sweet potatoes.

For dessert you can, of course, get flan, a model of an egg-flavored one. There are also some homemade ice creams, a vanilla they’re very proud of (it has visible flecks of vanilla bean, but the flavor is less of vanilla than the old-fashioned custard base it’s made out of) and a papaya. The best dessert is the most extraordinary, in effect a banana chimichanga: a banana wrapped in a tortilla, deep-fried and served in syrup.

Isn’t there anything, anything, I didn’t like? Well, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t taste the filling of my shrimp and crab enchilada because of the delicious and seriously hot green salsa on it. Likewise the empanadas; I couldn’t tell the crab and papaya from the chicken because of the overpowering flavor of the fried pastry. Service was a little erratic, too--this is a huge place, by the way, a former Velvet Turtle.

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But that’s it. Those are my harshest words. By me, this place is a flat-out winner.

The prices are also very good--not only reasonable for this level of quality, but more than reasonable for Fashion Island. At lunch appetizers and salads run $3.50 to $5.95, and entrees $4.75 to $6.95. At dinner appetizers and salads are $2.75 to $5.50 and entrees $5.50-$8.95. Special entrees at either meal seem all to be $9.95.

EL TORITO GRILL

59 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach

(714) 640-2875

Open for lunch and dinner daily. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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