Let’s face it, Mexican food, like Chinese cuisine in this chunk of the country, has been Americanized. The term authentic has been wrongly applied to cheese-covered enchiladas swimming in thick gravy and crisp corn tortillas stuffed with shredded lettuce and sour cream.
Still, there’s no denying the success of this tame style of south-of-the-border fare. Mexican restaurants are simply giving customers what they want.
“If we did authentic Mexican in North Idaho, it wouldn’t sell,” said Ruben Briseno, who with his mother, Gerania, owns three Mexican restaurants. The first of these opened in Coeur d’ Alene three years ago. It was followed by Hayden Lake and Post Falls locations.
Briseno worked for his uncle for a dozen years at Azteca in Seattle before venturing out on his own. There he learned the value of mixing traditional Mexican dishes, including arroz con pollo, carne asada (grilled steak served with guacamole and tortillas) and chicken mole with ever-popular burritos, fajitas and enchiladas.
Toro Viejo does make a good first impression.
On a recent visit to the Hayden Lake location the chips were warm, the freshly made salsa was hot and the margaritas were strong.
The restaurant has a nice but fairly spare decor. Hanging lights over the table were fashioned out of sombreros. Colorful murals covered a cinderblock wall. Tabletops were slick Formica. Windows look out onto the parking spaces.
Never mind. We happily sipped our margaritas in the large, comfy booth while poring over the extensive menu. The offerings have recently been expanded to include such tempting dishes as an enchilada that Briseno says is like a dish you might find on the menu in Mexico. The enchilada tipicas is filled with a choice of cheese and onions, chicken, ground beef or picadillo (a stewed, shredded pork) and then lightly coated, not smothered, in a special sauce.
I selected the new shrimp relleno - a delicious departure from the usual cheese-stuffed chili. This dish featured a mild Anaheim chili - it was fresh because the stem was still attached - filled with tiny shrimp and then coated in the light batter and fried. It was covered with a flavorful, slightly creamy sauce that didn’t mask the dish.
I was also impressed with the generous side of tasty guacamole, which was tangy and had a creamy texture but also had small pieces of avocado, a sure sign of homemade guac. I had requested “rancho” beans, a cholesterol-free alternative to refrieds that Toro Viejo offers. These whole pinto beans were served in a savory sauce seasoned with garlic and mild chilis.
My companion ordered a combination plate with a chalupa and a chicken enchilada. In both items the chunks of white chicken meat were juicy and had good flavor.
The chalupa was a sort of overgrown taco, a crispy flour tortilla filled with meat, lettuce and cheese. This was a fine rendition.
We also sampled the restaurant’s mole sauce on an enchilada. The thick, slightly sweet recipe is built around ground nuts, cocoa, cinnamon and ground chilis. This was one of the best versions of mole I’ve tried. It was super rich and the flavor struck a nice balance between bittersweet and spicy.
I plan to return to Toro Viejo and try some of the other new items, like the pork carnitas, which is boneless pork sauteed in garlic and orange juice, and the veggie burrito.
I liked the feeling of this place, the efficient staff that kept replenishing our salsa and constantly refilled our water glasses.
I also appreciate that you can order traditional dishes, if that’s your preference. (With advance notice, the kitchen can even make tamales in the corn husks, a favorite holiday treat.)
Briseno said he plans to add more traditional dishes in the future including a simple taco made with shredded beef.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Toro Viejo Address: 9510 Government Way, Hayden Lake, Idaho, (208) 772-0291 (other locations in Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls) Meals: Mexican Prices: $4.25-$9.95 Days, hours: Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Alcohol: full bar Smoking: separate nonsmoking section Reservations: yes Credit cards: DC, DISC, MC, V Personal checks: yes
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