The small plates at Tapa Toro are a delightful mix of Spanish and Mediterranean influences. And the paella pit cooks up tasty experiences aplenty.
According to Katerina Coumbaros, the cultures of Spain and Greece are similar enough that when it came time for her and husband Vassilis to open a second restaurant, the Andalusian tradition of tapas seemed a perfect choice. And so Tapa Toro, with its imaginative twists on traditional Spanish dishes, was born under the watchful Eye of Orlando at the I-Drive 360 entertainment complex.
“There are similar flavors between Mediterranean and Spanish food,” she says. The Coumbaros own the Orlando franchise of Taverna Opa, where souvlaki, ouzo and belly dancers demand equal time on the hopefully reinforced tables. There’s dancing at Tapa Toro as well (but not on the tables), performed by hand-clapping, stomping, skirt-waving flamenco bailaoras who roam the restaurant.
Several distinct areas make up the attractive restaurant: an outdoor patio; a round, table-laden section by the bar; the main dining room highlighted by a wall of paintings (more on that later); and the 12-seat “paella pit,” where some elemental magic happens involving rice, heat and spices.
The visible kitchen is under the command of Chef Wendy Lopez. Born in Michoacan, Mexico, Lopez grew up in her family’s restaurants. “My dad didn’t want me to work in a kitchen,” she says, “so he put me in the dish pit thinking I’d want to do anything else but cook.” Instead, she ended up at Orlando’s Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, where she learned the French techniques she now applies to Latin cuisine.
“I take the dishes from traditional and then go off in my own spin,” she says. Take her cold tortilla Española ($7). A Spanish tortilla is a firmly cooked omelet incorporating potatoes—kind of a home fries frittata. Lopez’s rendition layers thin potato slices with eggs cooked to an almost pancake consistency, sliced into bite-sized cubes and topped with a tart and spicy dressing. Equally delightful is pan con petipua ($6), pureed green peas topping crisp toast wedges with paper-thin candy-cane beets and creamy goat cheese. The garden freshness of the peas is offset by a touch of lemon and olive oil.
On the caliente side, Pulpo Al Gallego ($15) cooks tender sous-vide octopus on a charcoal grill to smoky perfection. Sprinkled with picante paprika and sea salt, it is a dish that disappears quickly. Their version of one of my favorites, patatas bravas (“fierce potatoes”; $7) doesn’t take much bravery; a tomato sauce base for the cubed fried potatoes held little of the spice I’d expect from this traditional offering. Garlic shrimp, on the other hand, was everything I’d expected, succulent shrimp simply tossed with chives, lemon, olive oil and a generous amount of sliced garlic ($15).
“I think the secret of tapas dining is this combination of multiple things,” Lopez says. “Each dish needs to be different, with very strong flavors and textures and temperatures. It’s the combination that’s so interesting.”
Entrée offerings are heavy on steak—sirloin skirt, ribeye, filet mignon and grilled lamb chops are all offered, while kids or kids at heart would go for the duo of hamburguesitas sliders ($11), juicy burgers dressed with caramelized onion and aioli.
Along the dining room walls are “paintings” made from video screens, that change over a prolonged period. You might see the “Admiral’’ sneak a drink, or a matador walk out of frame view. Or you might be too busy enjoying the food to even notice.
It’s All in the Rice
The round bar at Tapa Toro’s center focuses on paella, with a special flattop stove turning out lightly flavored seafood ($35) with chorizo, calamari, clams, shrimp and mussels mixed with the toothy medium-grained rice; or a robust chicken, chorizo and lamb chop version ($42). Ask that they leave the paellera pan on heat long enough to develop the much-treasured and often battled-over socarrat crispy bottom.