By Katie Doyle, Staff Writer
Each week, our writer Katie blogs about all things vegetarian.
Seeing as Spain is a decidedly carnivorous country, you might not expect that tapas, a hallmark of Spanish cuisine, would appeal to vegetarians. But Toro, a tapas bar in the South End that is often regarded as Boston’s go-to restaurant for Spanish food, is seriously shaking up that image.
Toro has an extensive menu, but the number of vegetarian options rivals the meat and fish dishes. The restaurant offers about 50 different tapas, and almost 20 are vegetarian. They even have a separate menu specifically for vegetarians, and some of the plates can be made vegan upon request.
I went to Toro one weeknight with my girlfriend. We arrived late, around 8:30 p.m., but had to wait about forty minutes for a table. Because Toro is such a popular restaurant and doesn’t take reservations, inevitably there’s going to be some serious competition for a table. But, as the hostess assured another couple that was waiting to be seated, “I promise it’ll be worth the wait.”
Turns out, she was right. Of the five vegetarian dishes I sampled, I had trouble picking a favorite.
The first two tapas I tried were from the menu’s “Pinchos” section, which includes smaller snacks more akin to appetizers. The queso de cabra, or goat cheese, had a delicious mild flavor that was complemented by pistachios and tomato honey. I also sampled the almendras marcenas. The gourmet Spanish almonds were toasted with a light buttery marinade. They had a surprisingly hearty flavor, almost honey-like, that worked well as an appetizer.
The patatas bravas, or fried potatoes, from Toro’s selection of “Tapas Calientes,” were probably my favorite dish, though the decision was hard to make. Toro’s award-winning executive chef, Ken Oringer, and his counterpart, Jamie Bissonnette, must have perfected the recipe, because the potatoes were right on pitch: crispy, without tasting too “fried.” The alioli and spicy tomato sauce that accompanied the potatoes set off the flavor.
The hummus dish I tried was a close second. Toro managed to add their own zest to the dish without compromising the hummus’ Middle Eastern flavors. The chickpea puree was made with rich, savory argon oil and seasoned with za’atar, a traditional Mediterranean blend of wild herbs and spices. I’m a particular fan of hummus, and Toro’s take on it won my approval.
Finally, I was most excited to try Toro’s house speciality, maiz asado con alioli y questo cotija. The grilled corn dressed with alioli, lime, pepper and aged cheese is a mainstay of Toro’s menu, and almost every table nearby had ordered it. While the corn was definitely appetizing—it had a flavor that was somehow both rich and buttery, but also fresh—it lacked a certain zest that I anticipated Spanish grilled corn would have. The dish wasn’t disappointing, per say, but it wasn’t as spectacular as I would have expected Toro’s house specialty to be. After all, the rest of Toro’s tapas were absolutely delicious, which is why I was surprised by the lack-luster maiz asado.
All in all, my experience dining at Toro was most definitely a success. The restaurant has a lively ambiance that works perfectly with the restaurant’s upbeat style of cuisine—each dish is brought out directly following the next, with not much lag time in between. Also, Toro has a street side patio that’s really nice on a warm night. The food makes the meal, obviously, but the service was stellar, too. The wait staff was attentive and quick, despite the fact that the place was packed. All in all, it’s not hard to see why Toro is one of Boston’s most popular restaurants.
One word of warning, though. In tapas style, most of the dishes cost less than $10, and many of the vegetarian options are only $4 or $5, but they add up quick. In addition to the five tapas I tried, Toro has many other vegetarian specialties that were tempting—the smoked eggplant, seared radishes and vegetarian paella looked absolutely delicious. Therein lies the peril of a tapas bar, especially one that caters to vegetarians: when portions and prices are small, experimenting with different dishes can be expensive—but also delicious. Fortunately, at Toro, it seems hard to go wrong.