I spent the night in Champaign, IL recently, in town for a morning meeting the next day. It was one of those evenings where I really didn't know what I wanted for dinner. Being on the road so much, I sometimes get burned out on restaurants and don't know exactly what I would like to eat on a given night. I had thought about Indian or barbecue. There was a steakhouse just down the street from my hotel. I decided to get in the car and head north on Neil Street toward the downtown area. I passed William St. and I noticed a restaurant with a lighted and festive looking outdoor patio. It piqued my interest, so I went back around the block to see what it was. It turned out it was a Mexican restaurant - El Toro Restaurante. (See map) I debated with myself for a few seconds trying to determine whether or not I wanted Mexican food or not. Then I thought, "You know, a margarita would taste pretty good." So I pulled into the parking lot on the west side of the building and went inside.
El Toro is a 10 restaurant family-owned regional chain with three locations in Champaign/Urbana, and five more Illinois locations in Rantoul, Bloomington, Monticello, Danville and St. Joseph. They also have El Toro Bravo restaurants in Cincinnati, OH, and Walton, KY on the southern edge of the Cincinnati metro area. The original restaurant is on W. Springfield Ave. in Champaign. In 1998, Victor Fuentes and his uncle, Manuel, opened their first restaurant, originally called El Torero. It was a small place, seating only about 100 people, tops. The Fuentes were joined by Victor's brothers and sisters, his wife and other family members in the business.
The Fuentes family opened their second location - called El Toro I - in Urbana in 2002. A third location on S. Neil Street opened in 2004. Their growth continued with the purchase of a Mexican restaurant in Springfield, IL (since closed) and opening the St. Joseph location in 2007. They moved from the original location to a space that was two and a half times larger on W. Springfield early in 2007. Victor and his brother, Sammy, are the main partners in the El Toro chain today.
Business at the S. Neil St. location had also grown tremendously over the years. They ended up moving in February of 2011 to a new location at the corner of William St. and S. Neil, closer to downtown. Even though the restaurant faces William St. and the main entrance is from the parking lot behind the building, the restaurant location maintains a Neil St. address.
It was around 7:30 when I got into the place. I was met at the hostess stand by a pleasant young lady who asked me if I wanted to eat in the bar or in the dining room. I took a look in the bar area, a very nice bar area that had high tables, high backed chairs, a nice bar with a couple televisions on the back wall.
There are two dining rooms in this particular El Toro - the middle room off the bar area that is well-lit, and the front dining room that features a fireplace, wooden beams across the ceiling and full-size windows looking out onto the patio on the south side of the building. Since it was still winter, the patio was closed, but strings of lights illuminated the outside of the place.
The hostess sat me at a table in the middle room off the bar area and dropped off a menu with a small menu listing their specials they had that night. My server for the evening, Alfredo - a pleasant 40-something man - came over to ask me what I wanted to drink. I told him that I wanted a margarita on the rocks, no salt.
As I waited for the margarita, I took a quick look through the menu at El Toro. Now, I've said for a number of years that there has to be some sort of a Mexican restaurant godfather who comes up with the menu items for Mexican restaurants. A number of them - like Azteca in the Quad Cities and El Maguey in the St. Louis area - all seemed to have the same combinations and under the same number. El Toro was another cookie-cutter Mexican restaurant when it came to their menu. Combination number 23 on the El Toro menu is a taco, chile relleno and a tostaguac - which, I believe - is the number 22 on the Azteca menu. The number 1 on the El Toro menu - a taco, two enchiladas with rice and beans - is, I believe, number 1 on the El Maguey menu. Nevertheless, it's all good in my book. It's like going into a McDonald's and knowing that the number 4 value meal is the same everywhere.
Alfredo came out with my margarita. Chips and salsa had been placed on the table by another server moments earlier. He wanted to know if I was ready to order. Since the menu was similar to many other Mexican restaurants like El Toro, you'd think I'd have an idea as to what I wanted. But I really didn't. They had a lot of seafood specialties on the menu - I was leaning heavily toward the shrimp tacos. But I was thinking of getting a chimichanga or maybe some fajitas. I told Alfredo that I needed a little more time.
The chips were fresh and warm and the salsa was pretty average. It was very similar to the other cookie-cutter Mexican restaurants where I've eaten. The salsa wasn't bad at all, just similar to others.
The margarita, I have to say, was outstanding. The mix was not overly sweet or syrupy. It had an adequate amount of tequila in the mix - at least enough where I could taste the booze. I made short work of the margarita.
I had picked up the specials list for the night and saw something on there call the "Fajita burrito" - a large burrito filled with fajita meat (your choice - chorizo, chicken or steak) with grilled onions and bell peppers, then guacamole is added. It's folded and then topped with a melted Mexican cheese. When Alfredo came back I ended up ordering the steak fajita burrito. Even though the margarita was excellent, I decided for my next drink to get a bottle of Dos Equis Amber beer.
My meal took a little longer to get out to me than normal for Mexican restaurants of El Toro's type. I'm sure they were cooking everything up from scratch on the grill and then placing it inside the burrito. It was a huge burrito that covered the majority of the large plate that it came on. There were some herbs - probably cilantro - that were mixed in with the Mexican cheese sauce on top of the burrito.
The burrito was packed with a lot of meat and veggies. The steak fajita meat was good and flavorful. It wasn't outstanding or it didn't knock my socks off. But it was typical of this type of Mexican restaurant. Good and serviceable. That's all I'm looking for in a Mexican restaurant like this.
I couldn't eat the whole thing, so I ended up picking most of the steak out of the center of the burrito. I dipped the steak in the salsa a couple times to help zip up the taste and that was good. I ate what I could and left a good portion of the large burrito on my plate. Alfredo wanted to know if I wanted a box, but I declined. It was all I needed.
The fajita burrito special at El Toro was a great value - $7.95 for that big thing. My bar tab for the margarita and the Dos Equis Amber was higher than my food tab (like that's a surprise). As I said, the burrito was good - not outstanding - but good Mexican-style comfort food. The margarita was well above average. At a place like El Toro you know you're going to get a pretty good meal at a pretty fair price. I'm sure there are other options for Mexican food in Champaign, but considering I sort of came across El Toro as I was driving down the street I was happy that I found it. The margarita, alone, is worth the trip to one of their locations. That is, if they make them all the same - and I'm guessing they do.