Chef Alexis Samayoa worries that patrons will expect stereotypical Mexican food when visiting his restaurant in Garden City, Tocolo Cantina. Busy Long Islanders, he fears, will favor a quick and easy taco or burrito over his upscale fare.
Samayoa recently opened his 98-seat hotspot in hopes that locals have discovered a sense of pleasure in eating, especially flavors from south of the border. But, as I walked in and found a table in the dining room adorned with retro wood paneling, green copper and tile, I realized that a glimmer of the chef’s New York City inspired food flair has found its way to the isle.
The Yucateco ($12), a mango, habanero chile, red onion and red bell pepper guacamole, which hit the table first, was split with a friend over homemade chips. They are warm and magical. A pleasant surprise to start the evening.
A large, 10-seat-wide bar stood against the opposite wall, stocked with an abundance of tequila, mezcal, gin, vodka and other spirits, making the restaurant seem even larger at first glance from my corner booth. I skipped the margaritas after only sips and traded in for the chef’s special “happy juice,” a sweet sangria that hits the mark.
One party at the center communal table seemed to be having a similar epiphany with pitchers in abundance. The manager tells us the cork board panels above are meant to counter the noisy buzz, which tends to fill new restaurants. The steady flow of wandering nomads from Westbury Plaza can surely be counted on to test their new soundproof ceiling.
Tangy arugula ($11) and tenderly sweet green kale salads ($12) are placed on the table by our waitress, who remained attentive throughout the meal with tidbits of information about co-owners Lloyd Rosenman, Todd Birnbaum and Coby Rejwan, whose earlier years in northern California inspired the photography on the walls.
I can see the chef spotted me from the open kitchen already and watches as I bite into one of a pair of lamb tacos ($12)—perhaps my favorite dish of the evening. I ask the waitress for the recipe, but am told it may be too difficult for the average home cook to prepare. Alas, the secret remains just that.
The chicken ($9) and al pastor ($9) tacos are also nice, but the latter is better and more flavorful. I am still reeling from the lamb tacos and the slice of pineapple which topped the al pastor tacos minutes into the next entree. Every ingredient is chosen specifically for its ability to enhance its counterparts and the pineapple, which burst with flavor in my mouth, was imported from Hawaii for its intensity.
Samayoa attributes years of tutelage under WD-50 chef Wylie Dufresne, and Empellón’s Alex Stupak, for the bold splashy tastes and presentation on display at his restaurant.
And so, I’m expecting a scallop ($14) and snapper ceviche ($14) next, to match the previous dish’s efforts but am underwhelmed by their subtlety despite the array of beautiful colors that fill the plate. The prickly pear crunch is a bit off putting for non-native eaters alongside the tender scallops, which are in the dishes defense, cooked perfectly, but yearning for the bite that tends to accustom bolder ceviches. The snapper is acidic and has a kick—balanced only by slices of cool avocado.
I could forego the fact that the blue corn tortilla quesadilla ($11) with chihuahua cheese, green chillies and salsa pasilla (a smoky, somewhat fruity Oaxacan sauce), didn’t have chicken in it after biting into some of the better and more authentic quesadillas I’ve had in my life. Perhaps Tocolo Cantina is Long Island’s most authentic Mexican restaurant?
A somewhat messy dish followed by another messy fundidos tray was enough for me to be covered in a bevy of sauces. Not an unpleasant experience.
The rest of my party made haste of the larger plates, setting their sights on dessert even after being delivered a platter of hanger steak ($28) and fideos ($28), what seems to be a Mexican paella of fried noodle, chorizo, clams and shrimp. I pick the shellfish off for myself, nearly mistaking the large shrimp for prawns.
No one said no to the tres leches cake ($8), a delicate dessert with tender mango and kiwi sprinkled over its top, or the churros ($8). With the check were two complimentary hot chocolate shots, not meant to be an actual gulp, but a sweet end to a filling feast.
Tocolo Cantina, 920 Old Country Rd., Garden City. 516-222-0060. tocolocantina.com
VERY GOOD LOCALE Quite large, and inviting 98-seat restaurant that caters to larger parties with booths that ring around the corners of the restaurant and two larger communal tables for parties. Seats are available at tables for smaller parties of two. Full wheelchair access.
PRICE POINT Prices range from $8-$12 for small plates and $18-$31 for larger entrees. All desserts are fixed at $8 each.
RECOMMENDATIONS Yucateco, snapper ceviche, quesadilla, lamb tacos, al pastor tacos, pollo asado, parilla, churros, and tres leches. To drink: “happy juice” sangria, Mango Habanero Margarita and Smokey Y El Bandito.
HOURS Lunch: Sunday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: Sunday to Thursday, 3 to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 3 to 11 p.m.
RATING Excellent, Very Good, Good, Decent, Not Worth Visiting.