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El Torito Dishes Up Mexican with Cheer 

Over the course of two visits to El Torito Taqueria, we got to know more than a few of the staff members, some even on a first-name basis. From server to bartender to owner, the folks who work at this new Mexican restaurant seem to go out of their way to make sure guests are happy and well cared for. That kind of attitude can go a long way toward turning an average meal into a pleasant night out.

When we attempted to order a margarita with special instructions, our server fetched the bartender, who listened, asked questions, and returned moments later bearing the perfect cocktail. When we asked our server about an unfamiliar ingredient on the menu, she fetched one of the owners, who described it in unambiguous detail. When we finished our meal and requested the check, management sent over a round of tequila shots on the house. That's just how things roll at El Torito.

Mexican restaurants in our neck of the woods tend to fall into one of two camps: the old-school Tex-Mex joints peddling cheese-smothered enchiladas, rice and beans and the Mod-Mex contingent with its fresh spins on regional Mexican cuisine. El Torito, which opened a few months back in Lakewood, attempts to split the difference, and does so with varying degrees of success.

El Torito starts off with a bang, delivering a basket of warm, thin, salty tortilla chips alongside a bowl of bright and fresh salsa. It's of the smooth, pureed variety, not the lumpy, bumpy, chunky stuff. You'll want to kick it up with some of the tabletop bottled habanero sauce; or better yet, ask for the smoky, crazy-hot stuff from the kitchen. Keep the fun going by ordering the chicharron appetizer ($6.99), the perfect pairing of crispy, fresh-from-the-fryer pork rinds with tart salsa verde and creamy guacamole. The appetizer menu also veers off into non-traditional territory with items like breaded and fried chorizo balls, hamburger sliders, and habanero chicken wings, if you're into those sorts of things.

Though they're listed on the appetizer menu, the arepitas ($9.99) would make a filling and delicious meal. Fragrant grilled arepas, those thick, Colombian-style corn tortillas, serve as the base for a variety of toppings that include shredded pork carnitas, shredded chicken and spicy chorizo sausage. Sprinkled on top is shredded cheese and (a bit too much) Sriracha mayo and/or cilantro lime mayo sauces. The dense but thin arepas can be picked up and eaten like a piece of meaty bruschetta.

That dish illustrates the cultural ambitions of the restaurant, which travel from the streets of Mexico to the cafes of Valencia. El Torito offers respectable traditional-style tacos, using doubled-up soft corn tortillas. You can get barbacoa, chorizo, al pastor and even lengua, also known as braised beef tongue ($3.50). They are garnished simply and appropriately with chopped white onion, cilantro and fresh lime. Spain is represented by way of the paella ($15.99), but you wouldn't know it by looking at it or, for that matter, tasting it. Sure, there are mussels, scallops, shrimp and heaps of chorizo, but there is zero rice, at least not in the dish. The seafood-heavy stew comes with the same Mexican or cilantro-lime rice that accompanies every other dish on the menu. And the sauce — a salty, garlicky, tequila-spiked concoction — lacks the signature addition of saffron.

We tended to have much better luck playing it safe, sticking to those trusty Tex-Mex staples like enchiladas, burritos and, yes, chimichangas. They all benefit from a lighter touch when it comes to toppings like cheeses, sauces and sour cream compared to the typical fajita factory. We had no problem polishing off a pair of sensibly sized seafood chimichangas ($13.99). The "seafood" is a mix of garlicky sauteed shrimp and lumps of faux crab, and the twin pipes are gilded with chile con queso and ranchero sauce. Enchiladas verde ($11.99) nets a trio of chicken enchiladas topped with salsa verde and a dollop of crema fresca. Order the Burro El Toro ($13.99) and prepare to be blown away by its size. Stay away from the bland chicken — maybe opting for carnitas instead — and behold 12 inches of meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sour cream and refried beans.

In addition to a choice of cilantro speckled white rice or copper-colored Mexican rice, dishes all come with either firm and smoky charro beans or refried beans.

Once you get past the drab exterior and pothole-filled parking lot, El Torito isn't that bad to look at. The freshly remodeled interior, formerly Bottoms Up, features a two-level layout with a bar and dining room down and an elevated dining section off to the side. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than grabbing a seat at the bar, ordering a fishbowl-size margarita ($8.99) and settling in for some Cactus League baseball with a basket of warm chips and salsa.

El Torito Taqueria

1572 West 117th St., Lakewood, 216-712-6735 eltoritobar.com

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