By Paul Albani-Burgio
Toro Latin Kitchen & Lounge’s name is a clever nod to its fusion of pan-Latin and Asian flavors: “Toro” is a word both in Japanese (meaning “tuna”) and Spanish (meaning “bull”).
But it quickly becomes obvious which of the two meanings is more central to the ethos of this new Cherry Creek destination from prolific restaurateur Richard Sandoval. At the vast, brightly-lit space inside Cherry Creek’s JW Marriott Hotel (it’s the former home of the short-lived Social Fare and Second Home Kitchen+Bar for nine years before that), an artfully rendered image of a charging bull is never far away.
There’s nothing subtle about these bovines — or Toro’s ambition to be a new destination for sexy and sophisticated power lunches and nights out that is right at home in Denver’s most high-end dining neighborhood.
But while that Cherry Creek scene still packs plenty of old fashioned elegance and flash, relatively recent additions such as Quality Italian Steakhouse and swanky Japanese eatery Matsuhisa have demonstrated there is also room for transplants that combine those qualities with more adventurous international cuisine than can be found at a traditional steakhouse.
Toro, which has locations in Mexico City, Tokyo and Aspen Snowmass, serves chops and bison burgers alongside corn empanadas, a lobster quesadilla and multiple ceviches made with ingredients that lean decidedly South American.
For Sandoval, whose empire of 50-plus restaurants is based in Denver and includes local Mexican mainstays Tamayo in Larimer Square and La Sandia in Stapleton, bringing Toro to Denver made sense because the city is heavy on Mexican food but remains light on options from farther south.
“I like to say we are doing Latin American cuisine without borders,” Sandoval said. “We are using ingredients from all of South and Central America and we don’t limit ourselves to anything. It’s any country and any ingredient that we can find while also using as many local ingredients as we can.”
As the name indicates, Sandoval said the restaurant’s menu is also influenced by Nikkei food, which uses Peruvian ingredients like tropical fish and aji amarillo peppers and Japanese cooking techniques, and Chifa, a hybrid of Peruvian and Chinese cuisines.
For now, Toro is serving a paired down menu of dishes that Sandoval felt would translate well to take-out and delivery (Toro is on DoorDash and GrubHub) along with in-person dining. That menu includes two ceviche options, but Sandoval said he is planning to open a more expansive ceviche bar in what will be a first at any of his Toro restaurants when it is safe to do so.
“Denver is very health-oriented, and ceviches are really light. We like to say they are like sushi with flavor,” Sandoval said. “And we sell ceviche at Tamayo, and people really enjoy it so we thought we would offer a different take on it here.”
Sandoval is also hoping the airy dining room, which opens up onto an expansive patio with couches built around fireplaces set underneath umbrellas in addition to traditional tables, will attract diners eager to eat in more open outdoor spaces.
“The patio is really what makes this space unique,” said Sandoval. “It’s very unusual to find a restaurant with a patio of this size, and I probably wouldn’t have opened right now without it.”
While the abundant bull imagery gives Toro a decidedly masculine feel, that tone is balanced by the space’s many vibrant fabrics, which are sourced from Peru, and the rich color of the murals themselves, which were painted by Denver artist Patrick Kane McGregor.
Looking out onto the patio is the sleek bar, which will serve a wide array of rums, Cachaças, tequilas, mezcals and piscos, including a house tequila from Patrón commissioned especially for the restaurant. In a more ostentatious nod to its Cherry Creek home, there is also a tequila locker where high rollers can store their prized bottles.
Sandoval acknowledged that even an experienced restaurateur like himself has never faced a challenge that is anything like the one that comes with opening a new restaurant in this climate.
“People probably think I’m crazy, but my take was we’ve got to get back to some sort of normality at some point,” said Sandoval. “I think people have been enclosed in their homes for so long that when they come out they want to see new and exciting things, and I thought with our big outdoor space it made sense. People want to see new things and forget about COVID-19.”
Toro, which is located on the bottom floor of the hotel at 150 Clayton Lane, is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily with a happy hour with food specials from 4 to 6 p.m. Dinner is served starting at 5 p.m. with the kitchen closing at 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The bar will stay open an hour later each day (once bars get the green light to serve past 10 p.m. again).