Richard Sandoval has created a plush yet comfortable space for patrons who want high-end Latino fare presented with a creative spin and yet dishes with some traditional flavors and platings.
With news of Toro Toro’s new chef, Roberto Hernandez, dining at this downtown hot spot seems almost mandatory. After all, Hernandez grew up watching his grandmother cook Cuban meals before he grew up to enter a culinary school in West Palm Beach. Since then, he has traveled the world, going from kitchen to kitchen to build up his skills and repertoire. Besides the great food, the beckoning interior setting and the outdoor alfresco seating make this a must-eat restaurant smack in the middle of downtown DC.
It’s also the highest-end of Sandoval’s many other DC restaurants, places that showcase his Latino foods but not with the same panache as at Toro Toro. So it is not surprising that welcoming staff—and if you are lucky, even the chef—greet you as you enter. Once seated and having scanned the lengthy menu, do order some of the house’s signature cocktails: what could be more refreshing than a Passion Fruit Pisco Sour to set the scene?
As you set about scouring the menu, you may find that making that selection—or, for that matter, selections—could be challenging. Reason? So many temptations from the kitchen, all of which you can ponder while you nibble on the fresh buns served with a tomato salsa. To start, the choices are numerous, so many that you could form your entire meal from among the appetizer selections. Several stand out, including the ahi tuna and malanga tacos served in crunchy tortillas, the Wagyu beef carpaccio (beef sliced paper thin), and the octopus-chorizo anticucho, served with a fingerling potato hash and a smoked chimichuri aioli.
The entrée section of the menu is divided into the signature plates including a barbecue salmon and a Toro Toro burger. But the grilled Tomahawk ribeye is a winner, tender, juicy and captivating. Sides are numerous, of course, but the chipotle mac ‘n’ chese and the pancetta-studded Brussels sprouts make the perfect flavor balance—well, and calorie balance as well.
Ending with something sweet could bring you the surprise of your meal if you order the La Bomba. As it turns out, this has been a long-standing favorite at Toro Toro, and once you experience its thrill, you will see why. First, waitstaff line the table with a plastic sheet, a surprising effort for a dessert. And then the chef appears with an enormous chocolate “bomb,” which “explodes” on the table as he drops it in front of you. Out fall scoops of house-made gelato, almond crumbles, cheesecake mousse, passion fruit, and a caramel sauce. Stunned, you may not know where to begin, but dig in quickly before the scoops of gelato melt. By the way, it is delicious, and an unexpected treat. Besides, patrons at other tables will watch this dessert presentation with amusement and amazement.
With the meal concluded, you could wander downstairs to the lounge area if entertainment is on the schedule—DJs and dancing on a Friday or Saturday night. Otherwise, at lunch or at other times, feel culinary contentment as you head off into the city. You have just enjoyed an amazing Latino treat
Toro Toro, 1300 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC. Phone: 202-682-9500. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Taking over the kitchens at DC’s Toro Toro restaurant—a prime destination for folks who love Latino fare—Roberto Hernandez may call himself insane for leading such a busy life, but patrons are delighted with how well he crafts the restaurant menu. After all, he has been cooking since his childhood in his native Puerto Rico. “I think because it was a family affair my whole life,” he said. “The kitchen was always the busiest room in the house, and I was growing up in the busiest room in the house.” There he used to watch his Cuban grandmother cook all sorts of native fare, including, he recalls such personal favorites (and his comfort foods) oxtail and tongue.
While in college Hernandez started to work in kitchens to earn pocket money. That’s when he realized that what he really wanted to do was to become a chef, so he attended attended the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, where he acquired the basic cooking knowledge plus an understanding of numerous other cuisines.
After graduation, Hernandez went on to work in various restaurant in Florida, from French to Chinese, and spent some time working with French chef Claude Troisgros at the Delano Hotel. “I learned from him to apply French techniques to Brazilian ingredients,” he said. “I learned a lot from classical French cooking.”
After cooking in several Miami restaurants—during which time he cooked for numerous celebrities including Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Bono, and Russell Simons—he was appointed chef de cuisine at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. “I worked there for 3 years,” he said. “I wrote menus, took trips to educate my self.” Because the resort is closed from June to October, Hernandez had the time and opportunity to start a restaurant consulting business. Eventually, he resigned, moved to Puerto Rico and opened his own successful consulting firm.
In 2012, Hernandez returned to Puerto Rico to expand his consulting portfolio as the culinary director for Cultura Culinaria LLC, a nonprofit foundation that positions the Puerto Rican gastronomy in the Caribbean, Central and South America. He contributed to the design and developed the logistics for culinary events in Puerto Rico and USVI. In the fall of 2013 while working for Cultura Culinaria LLC, Hernandez was invited to the International Culinary Center in New York City to present a kitchen demonstration on Puerto Rican cuisine and its evolution. Next his talents took him to be a featured guest chef for Mio restaurant in Washington, DC, where he would later accept a position as executive chef in the summer of 2014.
In the summer of 2015 Richard Sandoval appointed him, to be at the helm of Toro Toro Restaurant. And the most popular dishes? “Right now,” he said, “It is a mix of lomo saltado empanadas, which are very popular, and the ceviche nikkei, which is a fusion between Asian and Peruvian fare, and the tuna tacos, the sea bass, and the Korean ribs.