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Tocolo Cantina review

Tocolo Cantina in Garden City serves tacos al

Tocolo Cantina in Garden City serves tacos al pastor, made with Berkshire pork, achiote marinade, charred pineapple, with a side of green rice. Credit: Barbara Alper

Fresh and refreshing, Tocolo Cantina brings the bright flavors of California-style Mexican to Long Island.

The sharp, casual spot is tucked into a row of shops at the east side of The Gallery at Westbury Plaza. It's trim and modern, with wood-panel and pressed-copper walls, a high ceiling, a busy bar, and colorful images to evoke San Francisco's Mission District.

More important, Tocolo Cantina stars chef Alexis Samayoa, who has cooked at Empellon, La Esquina, El Vez, Txikito and the departed WD-50 in Manhattan. His lively, focused food will make you rethink Mexican fare in Nassau and Suffolk.

Samayoa sends out glistening, superior ceviche, especially the hamachi, or yellowtail, finished with aguachile, cucumber and sliced gooseberries. Or, try snapper with salsa verde; and shrimp with passion fruit vinaigrette.

He prepares a vibrant, traditional guacamole with jalapeño and cilantro, but then ups the ante with the Yucateco version, sporting cool mango and fiery habanero chiles, and a third with sliced radish, medium-hot Fresno chiles, and tuna. You'll go through a basket of the house-made chips, with the guacamole, and with salsas such as pistachio, roasted tomatillo, and chiles de arbol. Queso fundido, with melted Chihuahua cheese, arrives enriched and bracing, with either short rib, chorizo, or mushrooms.

Tacos: terrific. Sample those with Berkshire pork, charred pineapple and an achiote marinade; slow-cooked lamb with chile-tomato-garlic-fueled salsa roja; and the Baja-style fish tacos, with green cabbage and lime mayonnaise. And be sure to order elote callejero, or Mexican corn on the cob, slathered with chipotle mayo, boosted with piquin chile peppers, and grated, salty Cotija cheese.

By now, you may have tasted one of Tocolo Cantina's outstanding Margaritas and house cocktails; well-made sangria; or a Jarritos soft drink. For the Coke devotee, they also carry the peerless Mexican Coca-Cola, sweetened with pure cane sugar.

Suitably hydrated, pick one of the "platos grandes" which are led by a juicy roast chicken with light, mild chile manchamanteles sauce; and sliced hanger steak, seasoned with poblano chiles. Head-on tiger shrimp, sparked by mezcal-jalapeño-garlic sauce, are a bit overdone, as is the whole branzino, with modestly spiced salsa a la Veracruzana.

Tres leches cake, churros with goat-milk caramel, rice pudding, fruit salad with fresh mint and guajillo chile oil, and ice pops from La Newyorkiña, the Mexican ices-and-sweets specialist, in chocolate, milky horchata, and mango-habanero: All recommended. And, to conclude, you'll receive a gratis taste of spiced Mexican hot chocolate.

Linger over a full cup.

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