Nearly everybody loves a good Mexican restaurant. A bowl of chips and a dish of spicy, fresh salsa put smiles on even the saddest faces.
So it's good to hear that the small, local chain La Tolteca has opened a new outpost. The restaurant on York Road in Cockeysville opened in January, and since Day 1, it has been a hit with the locals.
Scene & Decor When we arrived around 6:30 on a Thursday evening, we groaned at the sight of a full parking lot and the crowd at the door. La Tolteca was packed. Still, our wait wasn't too bad — about 20 minutes, as promised by the hostess.
Settled into our seats, we had a chance to take a good look at our surroundings. And there was a lot to absorb. La Tolteca's decor leaves no room for doubt about what type of restaurant it is. Everywhere we looked — from the walls to the tabletops to the backs of the chairs — we saw bright colors and Mexican-themed artwork. It was dizzying but fun.
Drinks Festive atmosphere aside, our meal got off to an inauspicious start with a lukewarm bottle of Tecate ($3.50) and a frozen margarita ($5.75 for a 14-ounce drink) that was more frozen than margarita. It tasted like a big glass of ice (and arrived without a lime to squeeze).
A margarita on the rocks (same price as frozen) had more sweet-tart flavor but lacked oomph. A little more tequila would've gone a long way.
Appetizers Though our drinks left something to be desired, our appetizers were very good. As soon as we sat down, we demolished a basket of warm chips, served with chunky red salsa and a cool ranch dip (free). Though we tried to pace ourselves, we couldn't keep our hands off the chips.
Guacamole ($3.49) was well-seasoned and creamy and queso dip ($3.49 or $5.99) was thin, mild and very appealing (no clunky orange glop here). Mixing and matching, we searched for (and found) the perfect mix of salsa and queso.
Service Dinner service started with a few bumps. Our drinks took longer than expected to arrive and appetizers arrived only after we reminded our waitress about the order.
After the appetizers, however, timing got on track, both from the bar and the kitchen, so we chalked the initial delays up to a wildly busy night. The waitress was friendly throughout the meal but she was obviously juggling a lot.
Entrees The appetizers gave us a peek at La Tolteca's approach to flavor; dinner confirmed that the kitchen knows what it's doing. The street taco platter ($11.99) included four tacos (we opted for two with carnitas and two with chorizo) plus rice, refried beans, guacamole and spicy salsa verde.
The small tortillas were piled with more meat than they could handle; both the carnitas and chorizo were well-seasoned and just spicy enough. On top of the meat, chopped onion and cilantro added freshness.
The street tacos were somewhat spicy but the camarones a la diabla ($12.99) really brought the heat. Large shrimp, cooked until springy, arrived in a deceptively calm-looking chipotle sauce. The sauce, full of smoke and peppery flavor, was powerfully spicy. We were thankful for the side dishes of rice, tortillas and a small salad that cut the heat and cooled our burning tongues.
Still, the flavor was excellent and kept us coming back for more, even as smoke surely poured out our ears.
At some Mexican restaurants, it seems that the quality of the food takes a back seat to speedy delivery. Not so at La Tolteca. Both dishes impressed us with their seasoning and construction; they had obviously been thoughtfully prepared and were well-executed.
Dessert The Don Juan ($6.99) was like a dessert course combination platter: a scoop of fried vanilla ice cream garnished with soft, sugary churros. Both were sweet with a little crunch. It was a fun and celebratory way to end the meal.
By the time we left, just before 8 p.m., the crowd at the door had thinned out but every table was still full. Our waitress continued to dart back and forth between her tables, the kitchen and the bar.
She seemed like she was having fun, and we hope that's the case. Because with food as good as La Tolteca's, those crowds won't disappear any time soon.
La Tolteca in Cockeysville
Back story: Opened in January in the Cockeysville space formerly occupied by Seasons Pizza (which moved to a new building), La Tolteca is the seventh restaurant in the Martinez and Carrillo family's small, local chain. Like its sister restaurants, La Tolteca specializes in authentic Mexican food filled with powerful flavors.
Parking: Lots in front and in back
Signature dish: The street taco platter is a treat. The four small tortillas, piled with meat (the carnitas was our favorite), cilantro and chopped white onion, are hearty and packed with flavor. Spicy salsa verde, fresh guacamole, refried beans and well-seasoned rice round out the platter.
Where: 10010 York Road, Cockeysville
Contact: 410-683-3340; facebook.com/latoltecacockeysville
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday; 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted Monday-Thursday
Bottom line: Great Mexican food and a cheery, busy atmosphere compensate for mediocre drinks and sometimes scattered service