Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Josh Capon and John McDonald by Adam Lerner]
Last fall, John McDonald and Josh Capon unleashed El Toro Blanco on the Village. A week later, Hurricane Sandy hit, knocking the power out of their stylish Mexican follow-up to Lure and B & B. Luckily, there was no damage to the space, and so the team started all over again a week later, restocking the guacamole bar and serving their light take on Mexican fare. El Toro Blanco has since ushered in the margarita-sipping crowds, opened up a patio, and snagged one star from Pete Wells (hitting some high decibels along the way). Here's McDonald and Capon on their false start, cursed spaces, and why you should look twice before you shut the door on the ETB delivery guy.
Let's talk about the opening?
Josh: We were open for a week, and then Sandy hit and we were shut down for a good seven to 10 days. John: This whole area was just shot for electricity?. Josh: It was a ghost town. We had all the momentum of opening a new restaurant and then we were closed.
So how did that affect things?
John: It was like a false start, honestly. Because of the magnitude of it, you can't even think about it twice. We just reset the clock, cleaned everything out, threw everything away, and then a week later, we geared up the team, and everyone came back and it was like having another opening again. Josh: There was a lot of bonding then, too, because a lot of people came in on their days off [when we were closed]. But, really, everything had to go in the garbage, everything started over from scratch and it really was a new beginning.
How have things changed since then?
John: The overall concept is still 100 percent of what it was, but these guys are always evolving, doing a lot of specials, running things that are seasonal.... Josh: We might be taking a few more chances now with our food. In the beginning, we really stuck to our opening menu. But now we're having more fun and letting loose a little bit, in terms of specials.
Josh: More traditional—I don't want to use "authentic," because we were authentic from day one—but you gotta remember 99 percent of my kitchen crew is Mexican. So a lot of these guys are getting behind the fact that they're finally working in a Mexican restaurant and have the opportunity to showcase what they do, whether it's old family recipes or old, local, traditional stuff from wherever they're from...they're like, "Hey, chef, check this out...." A lot of family food comes up and I'm like, "Let's just refine this a bit and make it look good with a more significant piece of protein, but the flavor is there." That's how it all came about.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
John: For me, I don't know. I don't even notice time. Josh: I know it's been a year when there's another Burger Bash. Does it feel like a year? Yes and no. I think it's gone relatively smoothly. I think we've had a lot of fun along the way, and the place has definitely matured. It's nice to finally have an outdoor space. John: We didn't have the full permit [for the patio] last year, so really, we just got it in the spring.
When did you first get the idea for ETB?
John: I started Dos Caminos with Steve Hanson over 10 or 11 years ago, and then got out of that business when the company was sold. So I'd been, in essence, without a Mexican restaurant for a couple of years. In some ways I'm taking some lessons and passions I had for Mexican food and marrying them with Josh's take on doing a Mexican restaurant that could be a little bit lighter, cleaner. With our seafood background, we're doing a substantial seafood component, so it's healthier. All of that combined makes it a restaurant people can dine at on a much more frequent basis than your typical Mexican restaurant. Josh and Scott [Lindquist] and Humberto [Corona] came together and put that in the machine and this is what we got.
I think physicality plays into it, too. I think for the most part, the rooms we try to design obviously have a certain patina, a certain history to them. They're not new, fancy, pristine dining rooms. They're dark, with a lot of ambiance and layers....
Josh: I think the menu is very eatable, accessible and approachable, which I can pretty much say for all of our restaurants, which is important. We really depend on regulars. When people think Mexican, they should be thinking El Toro Blanco. We have people who are here, literally, two or three or four times a week, because they love it. John always has a vision when he sees a room, when it was a canvas, and really saw what this place could be. I have a great kitchen space and have a great prep space downstairs, with a bathroom just for the employees, so I was sold... John: I love it.
Josh: He saw the upstairs and saw it could be something special... Mexican can be very heavy. With Mexican, I would know going into a meal, it's like Thanksgiving, I'm going to have to lay down afterward. John: No one leaves Thanksgiving feeling good. Josh: No, you're not supposed to. John: Your only hope is if you leave drunk and you don't know, and you wake up the next day and you're like, well, I'm hungover...or is this food? Josh: Humberto here, who cooks very traditional Mexican, I told him, "Listen, I don't want to see buckets of lard around here. A lot of the stuff you guys used to do back in the day, whether it was cost-effective or whatever reason, we have to update those recipes, because people don't want to eat like that." We've modernized that a little.
How did you find the space?
John: You mean in terms of it being available? We're down here...I knew when Silvano [Marchetto] and his daughter had it, and when they decided to close, it sat empty for some time. And then the landlord, the gentleman who owns this building, comes into B & B and Lure quite a bit. I kind of have a reputation of not leaving Mercer Street, so he presented the question like, "Do you think you could go five minutes by foot west?" Josh: That was a big jump for you. John: In a weird way, I kind of liked the fact that it was known as the quiet, dead street, because the neighborhood is so strong, between the Village, between Soho. The whole notion of the spaces that people say are cursed, to me, [only applies if?] two other crazy, high-level restaurateur guys, like Mario Batali or Danny Meyers, had walked in here and they put massive amounts of resources behind it and back-to-back they failed. Often consumers don't really relate that, they just see something come in and out. And, look, those guys made a good effort, I think it was too much Italian. They tried to open an Italian restaurant across from three Italian restaurants.
This needed to be something that was extremely specific and destination-based. Every night of the week I know there's going to be a certain amount of people who say, "Let's go have Mexican food, let's go have guacamole, let's go have tequila." If we can do our job and do it right and hit those high points, then you know there's going to be a certain amount of taxis, subways, people pointing at you. It's just a numbers game, but you have to have an identity. But this is strong enough and different enough from everything that was on this block that we felt confident that it could be converted. For some reason, and I don't know why, outdoor seating and Mexican food is just this crazy marriage. We had it at Dos Caminos, and it was just a monster. We'd have people wait an hour to wait outside.
Josh: With the extended sidewalk, it's kind of nice, so you're not on the street. I think we're also running a great beverage program. Christene Hassel, who's our beverage director, has some great knowledge and she's done a great job educating the staff, which I think is very important. Tequila's hot, it's like the new Scotch, the new bourbon. It's easy to walk into a restaurant and say, give me a margarita, but we have a few other options. We have some great seasonal margaritas. We're going to start doing Mezcal Mondays, which I think are going to be a lot of fun. I don't love Mezcal, but people come here for our Mezcal selection.
Anything else new going on?
John: We just started delivery. Josh: It's with Seamless, but you can always call up and order. I've even been making a couple of deliveries myself, on my bike. Sometimes I'm going to Lure and I notice a delivery going to Wooster Street, and I'm like, I've got it. Some people notice I'm the chef, some people don't. John: He does it in his [chef] jacket, and sometimes people don't even notice. I said, we should have a hidden camera just to get people's reactions. Because sometimes it's literally like, grab the bag, slam the door. Josh: People are so busy.... Seamless is meant to be seamless, the tip is in there and everything. Literally, I've done maybe six or seven deliveries. I'm in my chef jacket, I have my name on my jacket and I'm kind of like, "Hey, I'm the chef.... (I like to talk to people.)" And, literally, they open the door, grab the bag, close the door in my face. I'm like, "That was so anticlimactic."
Have there been any surprises over the past year?
John: Honestly, no. There usually is, but this one kind of went according to plan. Josh: I think the place is a lot of fun. And as a chef, I don't take myself too seriously, but I think it's very important to put a plate of food in front of a customer that they thoroughly enjoy. But the thing we've learned is people who are going out for Mexican want to have a good time. I mean, think about it. It's margaritas, it's guacamole...it all sounds fun. It's a fiesta, and you can tell. Sometimes the dining room gets a little loud, because people are having a good time. I remember in the beginning, we were a little nervous, even during the review phase, if you will, that there would be certain people in the room and I'm literally going over to tables going, "Hey, guys, please stop banging the table." They would be quiet for two minutes, and then the next thing, they're screaming again and I'm like, "You know what? Screw it. They're having the time of their lives, and that's more important to me than anything anyone else is going to write."
How did you feel about the review?
John: Good. ? Any chef that tells you they didn't want an extra star, you're going to see through that. But I think our customer knows what we do, and it was positive. Josh: I thought it was fine, you know? We were very, very happy. You always hope for a little more, but at the end of the day, I think they got it. And I think it's a great Mexican restaurant. I think we were able to put this place on the map pretty quickly, in terms of Mexican restaurants in New York City.
Josh, how are you splitting your time between all the restaurants?
Josh: I'm everywhere, I'm Batman. I'm trying to clone myself, like Multiplicity. The truth is, I can't be everywhere. That's why it's very important to me to build great teams that you have confidence in to let them run the store. Obviously, I'm here all the time, as much as I can be. Nothing goes on the menu without me approving it. We always have weekly manager meetings, we have pre-meal shifts and if I'm around, I'm here for the pre-meal shift at every restaurant, because I scatter them so I can be.
What do you see in the future for ETB?
John: I never really think of doing a second or a third one right away, but I think this in particular, with the right location, is something we'd replicate pretty quickly. Josh: I hear it all the time. "Hey, we need an El Toro Blanco on the Upper East Side! We need a B & B on the Upper West Side!" John: So much of it is just a real estate play. If it's slightly the wrong street, the wrong block, for whatever reason, the wrong shape...even some of these restaurants people go into, they just don't have the right shape. You're never going to make it right, in terms of creating energy in a dining room. Obviously, it depends on what your goal is. Would I like to have another El Toro Blanco? That'd be great, but it's easier said than done. We're opening Lure Miami in about a month [around Nov. 20]?. Josh: We haven't even opened Lure Miami yet, and people are like, "Oh, you need an El Toro Blanco in Miami." I'm like, "Whoa, we haven't even opened up Lure yet."
· All Coverage of El Toro Blanco [~ENY~]
— Katie Abbondanza