by Mike Corrigan

When you visit Toro Viejo -- that's the original Toro Viejo on Second Street in downtown Coeur d'Alene -- you are immediately greeted by the friendly visage of a dapper Mexican gentleman, grinning like a Cheshire Cat. His name, you soon discover, is Vincente Fernandez. He is a singer, an artista Mexicano. But Vincente does not move. His wide-brimmed sombrero is forever frozen in the grip of his right hand. The enigmatic Vincente Fernandez -- brought to life via the magic of pigment and brush -- is the most dominant feature of the lively, colorful murals that cover the walls of the restaurant. He may not be real in the corporeal sense, but there is something so friendly and familiar about him that he draws you in. You find yourself choosing an empty booth near him, finding solace within the influence of his strangely alluring personal magnetism. And so begins a typical lunch hour spent at one of North Idaho's favorite family Mexican restaurants.

Toro Viejo boasts three locations: the original (in Coeur d'Alene), one on Government Way in Hayden Lake and another on West Fifth Street in Post Falls. Owner Rueben Briseno started his restaurant dynasty nearly 10 years ago, converting a former Italian restaurant into Toro Viejo's flagship.

"We've been in the restaurant business for 22 years," he says. "We worked for another Mexican restaurant in Seattle for 12 years before we decided to open our first one."

With something like 15 Mexican restaurants within the Post Falls-Coeur d'Alene-Hayden triangle, the competition for the hearts and palates of Mexican food lovers in this part of North Idaho is pretty fierce. But Briseno's family restaurant business thrives.

On the day we visited Coeur d'Alene's Toro Viejo, for instance, the place was positively bustling with a cross-section of tourists, business types and Moms with their spring break-liberated progeny. The bright wall murals and hanging plants contrast with the dark wood, rustic brick and burgundy upholstery that rules the remainder of the restaurant's d & eacute;cor. Toro Viejo has a huge and interesting main menu, featuring a wide variety of traditional Mexican favorites and an abbreviated, thoughtful lunch menu, offering a good selection of dinner-y entrees at very reasonable prices (the combinations, for instance, run from $4-$6).

First up, the complimentary chips and salsa appetizer (a nice treat that's become virtually the norm at area Mexican restaurants). The chips were bright yellow and crisp with robust corn flavor. Their texture was a little strange, though, sort of -- I don't know -- "fluffy." Not unpleasant in any way -- just different and unexpected. The salsa, on the other hand, was an unqualified success: lively and flavorful with a great, big fiery kick.

All of the combinations come with sides of refried beans (vegetarian refried beans are available upon request) and Spanish-style rice. I selected the No. 2 combination ($5.95) -- an enchilada with choice of filling (I opted for chicken) and a tamale. The dish was fresh-tasting, well made and attractively presented but a little on the tame side for my taste. The enchilada sauce as well was quite bland. I poured the rest of the chip salsa over things to spice it up a bit. The sides were typically well prepared and generously proportioned.

Sheri ordered the crab enchilada ($5.95) after our server assured her that the crab used in the dish was actual crab and not "krab" (I'm sure you all can appreciate the difference). The two corn tortillas were stuffed with delicate, real crab meat and topped with red sauce and Jack cheese. Once again, the entr & eacute;e was nicely presented -- in this case accented with a dollop of sour cream, chopped onions and tomatoes and slice of avocado -- but generally lacking in zip.

The service, though excellent overall, took a few minutes to hit its stride. At the outset, our water glasses stood empty for a time and the chips and salsa were a little slow in coming. But after that initial sputter, our servers cheerfully went into overdrive and we were well attended to for the remainder of our stay. The entrees arrived promptly, our waters and sodas were regularly refilled and the check arrived precisely at meal's end.

Toro Viejo is open every day and located just one block north of Sherman within easy walking distance of the beach, the boardwalk and downtown shops, making it a natural stop for lunch-bound pedestrians with a hankering for quality, gently-seasoned South of the Border fare.

Oh, and be sure to say "hello, there" to Vincente.

Festival of America @ Grand Coulee

Mon., July 4, 2-10:30 p.m.
  • or