El Toro Mexican Grill appears to be a member of a chain, one of 19 restaurants whose core menu is based on a set of Tex Mex dishes, whose names are unique to Atlanta, that simply do not change from restaurant to restaurant (other examples include Fronteras and Poblanos).  The existence of the common Atlanta Tex Mex can be recognized by the dish called a “Speedy Gonzales” (taco, enchilada, and rice or beans).  And I can say, after some years in Houston, Texas, going to school here, and eating occasionally at Houston’s Mexican restaurants, I never once heard of a “Speedy with beans”. Not once.

So, having identified the cuisine, is this a good thing? Well, the best thing that can be said about it is that it’s filling and inexpensive, and not all that bad. It’s not really the acme of Tex Mex, but neither is it the abyss either. So, if the high end of border cuisine is a restaurant like Ninfa’s on Navigation, in Houston, or perhaps Posados in Bossier City, Louisiana, or Pappasitos wherever the Pappas family stakes a claim, this restaurant is living in the comfortable middle. And it’s not a bad place to be, the middle. When your entrees begin at $6.75 and many are under $8.00, then someone with a limited budget and a largish family might be able to afford to eat there.

This particular location is new, occupying a place at the corner of Pleasant Hill and Club Drive, in a building that used to contain a Japanese restaurant, which failed, and then Gaucho’s Grill II, an Argentinian steak house, which also failed. It’s a nice location, easy to access, and I had some hope that this restaurant would turn out all right.

A brief taste test suggests it will. I tried the Enchiladas Supreme (identical dish can be found at Poblanos), and my daughter tried their sopapillas (which looked suspiciously like chips drizzled with cinnamon, as opposed to the New Mexican style sopapillas I grew up with). The best of the enchiladas was their chicken. I couldn’t be sure if they flavored their chicken the way Frontera’s does.

The restaurant was pretty full considering that they just opened, and Hispanics dominated the restaurant. The waitress was very nice, and told us that two weeks from now (now being April 7, 2009), they would be having a half price off special, probably on a Saturday. Might be worth looking forward to, for those in Snellville. If you like this kind of food, stop off as you drive down Pleasant Hill road sometime.

El Toro Mexican Grill
1492 Pleasant Hill Road
Duluth, Georgia, 30096

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It’s in the same strip mall as the Lilburn International Farmer’s market, to the left as you’re facing the market, at the intersection of Highway 29 and Indian Trail. It’s small and new, and like all new restaurants, is in that stage where it establishes a clientele or goes away. There was almost no one in the restaurant at the time I dropped by, though soon after, a couple with three kids tried it.

The cuisine is French creole, which, as best I can determine, is a fusion between Caribbean cooking and French cooking, coming out of the French occupied Caribbean islands. If I have a complaint about food in Atlanta, it’s that they don’t have enough spicy food, and even food that should be spicy is often shamefully lacking in spice. So I was hoping for something that would engage the palate.

Entrees at RJ’s ran from $9.00 for their chicken dishes, to $18.00, for a plate of conch with creole sauce. Dishes were based on seafood, beef, goat, and chicken. I had the legumes, which were a mix of vegetables with pieces of meat and small pieces of crab (in shell). It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t to die for either. And as in most cuisines, it usually takes a try or three before anyone knows what they like. The food had some spice, but not enough to be overwhelming. The dish came with a generous plate of peas and rice, which is a variant of the red beans and rice seen in Louisiana. It was tasty and good.

I had a dessert, a sweet potato pastry, which was good. That’s a surprise for me, because I usually don’t like sweet potato on anything. Service was good. They are very attentive to the customers they do have, will offer tastings, etc.

Verdict? I’m unfamiliar with the cuisine. I want to try it again sometime, before knowing whether RJ’s is a keeper. I can say it’s promising overall, and worth a stop if you’re in the area.

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