Northwest Norman has seen a large and increasing amount of growth in recent years, especially since the Norman Regional Healthplex opened in 2009, but mostly in residential and professional developments – witness the surrounding cluster of medical offices and the enormous new Anatole at Norman apartment complex on Tecumseh. North of the venerable Brookhaven Village, there’s been little to see in terms of places to shop or dine until you approach W 19 in Moore. That left an opportunity for an establishment willing to be a bit of a pioneer, and along with partners Scott and Kathleen Schuler, the husband-wife team of Gerry and Jennifer Reardon have seized the bull by the horns by opening Asian-Latin fusion restaurant El Toro Chino.
The feel is spacious and comfortable with plenty of gloss and a lot of style. Check out the glass-enclosed fireplace by the entrance, the visual pop of red tile over the black wood bar and the constantly rising bubbles in the aerated water panels that separate the bar area from the row of high-backed booths clad in tufted black leather. A good deal of thought and effort clearly has gone into the planning of architectural elements and smaller design accents alike, down to the enthusiastic menu font and dish of postprandial Hot Tamales waiting for departing diners.
At lunch, the menu is mainly a wraps-and-bowls affair, with a large list of ingredients both Latin and Asian from which you can forge a custom meal (I should have had pickled rather than sautéed onions in my chicken wrap, but the Sriracha-bacon rice and citrus-marinated jicama are both excellent additions) or choose a pre-programmed combo.
Lunch is speedy and good, with plenty of variety to experiment around, but dinner is when the lineup really impresses. The Fusion Nachos would be a meal in itself – the chips are made of seasoned wontons, so they’re crisp and crackly, loaded with slivers of tender beef in a sweet (and deceptively spicy) hoisin, along with sautéed onions, black beans, cheese and spiced sour cream. Among starring entrees, the salmon is pan-seared and served over a succotash of chickpeas, fennel and chorizo, and the brisket is a beautiful strip of Akaushi beef, marinated in brown sugar and soy sauce and presented under a cilantro-lime sauce with Spanish rice and mushrooms.
When I asked chef Gerry whether he has any dishes on the menu that are special favorites, he smiled and praised the brisket and the shrimp empanadas (“Oh, those are so good,” Jen interjects); I posed the same question to her, and after a moment’s thought she cited the spicy crab cake and called the brunch chicken sandwich known as Closed on Sunday “a life-changer.” Whatever you get, I promise you won’t regret ending with a scoop of caramel and sea salt gelato in an edible bowl made of churros.
Plus, as is evident from the first glance and confirmed by the first bite, it’s all combined and presented with care. With a rueful laugh about the magnitude of their produce bill, Gerry runs through a mini-checklist of everything they take the extra effort to do in person: “We juice everything in-house for our cocktails (P.S. The blackberry and rosemary gin fizz and watermelon-enhanced El Toro Tiki are delicious), all our desserts are made in-house. We’re making carnitas every day. We make beans every day. We make rice … maybe every other day.”
The results of their efforts speak for themselves; now to see what kind of following the resulting restaurant, which will hit its six-month mark in a few weeks, can build. “We’re excited for the long haul,” Gerry says, noting that the whole area of 20 acres or so surrounding them is primed for development. That’s good news for the prospective future, but they’re still pioneers in a sense – and I’d like to see El Toro Chino’s adventurous spirit pay off. Heed their slogan, “Flavor favors the bold,” and go exploring.
Gerry and Jen have decades of restaurant experience, notably at Café 501, but manager Rachel Ferren said that the chef’s been working on this menu for years and that this has always been the dream. He’s clearly enjoying himself, too. He was all smiles while telling us that they’ve begun special events – they had their first wine dinner the night before our visit and are periodically hosting local bands such as Heartbreak Rodeo – and asserting that they value an atmosphere that’s enjoyable for everybody. “We take the food seriously, we take the service seriously, but everything else is supposed to be fun.”
► El Toro Chino
2601 36 Ave NW, Norman | 405.701.8676 | eltorochino.com