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Restaurants & Bars 6

El Toro Negro, St. Petersburg

Bergerman | Aug 21, 200511:59 AM

I wandered into this little place a few weeks ago but was too stuffed from lunch to try it. So I returned last week and am glad I did. This is the real deal for Mexican food, with tacos as good as the Taco Bus in Tampa, and an array of salsas so vast I couldn't try them all. This is not a faux-Mexican place with gooey cheese and high-octane margaritas; in fact, they don't serve margaritas (don't think they even serve beer). It's a hole in the wall (formica table tops, linoleum floor, little in the way of decor), sharing a strip shopping center with a Portguese food-and-gift shop and a couple other small businesses.

Technically El Toro Negro is in Kenneth City, on 54th Ave. N. around 56th Street (from Tampa, take I-275 and go west on 54th Ave). It is half-restaurant, half-grocery store (pork lard was on sale for $2.50/lb, btw). As a fan of the Taco Bus (Taconazzo on E. Hillsborough in Tampa), I decided I would keep it simple and try a few tacos for comparison (five, to be specific and admittedly a little piggish, but all for a good cause). They were all excellent, but particularly the fish taco, which was grilled instead of fried, and the steak, which had been marinated and was very tender; only disappointment was the fried pork, which was a little dry. Some had cabbage, some had pico de gallo. All served on double soft corn tortillas. I also tried a gordita with pork that was excellent (nothing like what Taco Bell calls a gordita, of course; this was closer to a small torta, or sandwich). The menu included chile relleno, ceviche, tortas (which looked fabulous as one was carried to another table), burritos, enchiladas, to name a few.

The service was admittedly spotty and our waitress apologized, though she did pretty well considering she was the only one there and had to run the cash register, bus tables and was cleaning up a mess near one of the refrigerated soda cabinets when we asked for our check. And she was really helpful and patient with a couple of Spanish-challenged gringos trying to figure out what to order.

The salsas and freshly made chips are kept on a small salad bar, where you can help yourself. There were easily a dozen different kinds, ranging from light greens to deep, dark reds, from mild to make-you-sweat hot. I tried about half of them, and really liked one the waitress said was made with chipotle peppers. Midway through lunch they put out a bowl of some sort of pineapple-and-onion salad that was better than it sounds; it tasted fresh and was both hot and sweet.

Five tacos, a combo plate of gorditas with rice and beans, a tostada with ceviche (chopped finely and spread over the fried, flat tortilla), two diet cokes (refilled a couple times), a couple baskets of chips and two Mexican frozen cream pops (mine had pinon, both made in Clearwater; I couldn't finish it) came to $19 and change.

Great tastes and food value to boot. A certifiably chowhound kind of place.

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