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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Antojitos el Toril will turn you into a gordita
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I passed it dozens of times - maybe hundreds - and somehow never noticed it. And now I'm sorry about all the good meals I've missed at the little Mexican taquería on Cottage Grove Road.

Antojitos el Toril is an unassuming place with no pretension and scant ambiance. The decor is courtesy of Corona beer, and the beer comes without a glass, unless you ask for one.

What makes up for this? Warm, friendly service, good food, large portions and most modest prices. Sounds like a good trade-off to me.

Araceli Aguilar is the owner and jefe de cocina here. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, she opened Antojitos el Toril two years ago, in the space vacated by Allie B's cafe, relying on foods and recipes that her mother passed down to her. Antojito means "little whim," an appetizer, but this restaurant, despite its small size, goes well beyond tacos, enchiladas and burritos - what I call "fun with tortillas."

Of course, you will find all these foods here, and they are all prepared very well. The tacos are plump, stuffed with chicken, pork, tongue, chorizo or beef jerky, topped with lettuce, tomato and crumbly queso fresco. At $1.85 a la carte, these tacos are an irresistible bargain. For $4.49, you'll get two tacos with refried beans and rice! There's dinner for five bucks.

Other fun-with-tortillas items include enchiladas, flautas, tostadas, burritos and quesadillas, all intermingled with chicken, pork, beef, chorizo and tongue. (Incidentally, the tortillas are homemade, and they are good.)

Other antojitos include tortas (Mexican sandwiches), nachos, sopes and gorditas, which are fat little tortillas (in fact, gordita means "little fat one") fried and stuffed with steak, chicken or pork and topped with lettuce, sour cream and cheese. Eat enough of these, and you, too, will become a gordita.

Entrees include carne asada, quick-fried beefsteak, thinly sliced, which is not especially tender but very flavorful; several chicken breast options; carnitas (chopped pork); bistek a la Mexicana; and pollo a la Mexicana. (Warning: Anything labeled "a la Mexicana" is apt to be loaded with jalapeño peppers, so watch out.)

This being Madison, there is a full complement of vegetarian dishes available, most involving cheese, beans, chiles, rice, sour cream, avocado and potatoes. There are also two egg dishes - huevos al gusto (eggs prepared as you like, with rice and beans) and huevos a la Mexicana, with onions, tomato and peppers. (See warning, previous paragraph.)

On Saturdays and Sundays, Araceli gives full play to her culinary talents. She offers barbacoa, slow-cooked lamb served with cilantro, onion and tortillas, with rice or beans. There is pozole, a specialty of her home region, a rich and hearty soup that goes back to pre-Columbian days, made with hominy corn, pork, onion, garlic, chiles and cilantro. There's caldo de mariscos - seafood soup - and there is menudo, that famous and richly aromatic Mexican tripe soup with chiles, cilantro and onions. In Mexico, it is often consumed in the early morning after a hard night, since it's supposed to cure a hangover. If you have ever tried menudo, you might believe that it doesn't cure a hangover, it just replaces it with something far worse. But you should try it once. Put it on your bucket list.

The corn chips are homemade, served with a red salsa (which has almost no spice at all) and a green tomatillo salsa, which is only moderately spicy. If you want to challenge your taste buds, ask for the salsa picante. They'll bring it out hesitantly, in an acid-resistant dish. You can enjoy it with your choice of nine Mexican beers. Nonalcoholic beverages include Boing Juice (a Mexican soda pop, not recommended), strawberry and banana smoothies (good for healing cauterized taste buds) and, for some reason, carrot juice. Desserts are limited to ice cream (vanilla or chocolate) and flan. The wide-screen TV is always tuned to a Spanish station, so you can brush up on your language skills as you eat.

I really like Antojitos el Toril. Araceli is a warm, friendly, and outgoing person, as are her nephew and niece, who also work there. This is one family-run taquería that east-siders can depend on for comforting food, modest prices, a welcoming smile, and occasional culinary excitement. It's a great addition to the neighborhood. Next time you drive by - don't.

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