Last weekend, El Torero provided a front-row seat for all kinds of heat.
The Waldo Canyon Fire burned along mountain ridges visible from the restaurant's west-facing windows, spurred on by some of the most sweltering days Colorado Springs has seen in decades. Mirage-like waves of warmth poured off the parking lot and into the open doors — when the setting sun stabbed through, you moved.
And from the kitchen, the slices of fresh jalapeño spiked a fondue-like queso fundido ($5.55), a pleasant little bowl of cheddar and tomatoes that never failed to offer a stretchy bite.
Which brings us to the food. It's why, even if you hate to sweat, a trip to El Torero — the former home of Indy favorite La Perla Tapatía Mexican Taqueria, and as pleasant a little spot as ever — is worth it.
Get the carne en su jugo ($9), a precursor to chili con carne that's a mixture of the soft, plump, creamy and crunchy. A beef broth is filled with tender cuts of steak, pinto beans, lettuce, garlicky guacamole, sour cream, button mushrooms and tomatoes. Tortilla strips cover the top, completing the textural playground.
Or try the chile colorado ($8), where velvety chunks of pork pool in a boldly herbed, dirty-redish-brown sauce of cumin, onions, guajillo chiles and the like. It's meaty crack when piled in a pillowy tortilla.
The dishes come from 20-year-old owner Louisa Yanez-Herrera and her husband, who do all the cooking. Meanwhile, two of Yanez-Herrera's brothers, one of whom can't be older than 13, help out in the dining room.
The family vibe brings its charms, but also predictable frustrations. It's hard to find out what some of the menu items actually are, because sometimes the only answer is a search for words and a final, "It's good — I've had it before." At various times, side plates, silverware, napkins, to-go boxes, refills, desserts and the check are all missing when they shouldn't be. Also, I can't imagine there's much of a service system in place, as it's pretty common to either have all four people check on you within a few minutes, or nobody.
But generally, the food's as warm and fun as the black-and-white soccer ball and baby bouncer in the front room.
The steak tacos toreados ($10.55) may have wanted for lime and been too dry (though they were partly saved by a side of guacamole), but their chewy greasiness — coming from a quick fry — and the smear of enchilada sauce made for good eating. The chicken in the pollo en mole ($9) was similarly parched, but the dark, sesame-seed-flecked sauce poured over top was such a tantalizingly layered mix of bitter chocolate, savory something, and chili-pepper spice that I could have drunk it.
The refried beans seemed freezer-burned; the relleno ($2.75) was damn near solid; and the watery, chalky horchata was one of the worst I've ever had. But if the cheese enchiladas ($2.25) were plain, the tomatillo topping sparkled with tang; the tomatoes on the hongos al ajo ($4) may have been unripe, but the buttery grilled mushrooms were simple and delicious. And the chimichanga ($2.50) was standard, but the fried bits of shredded pork inside were almost luscious — and hot.