A Fiesta of Flavors

Ignacio “Nacho” Toribio never planned to work in a restaurant. Nearly three decades ago, living in Atlanta, he spent weekends helping his older brother Ramon run a Mexican restaurant. Arriving early in the morning and staying late at night “was something I didn’t like at all,” Toribio admits. “I was 25 or 26 and enjoying my life. I said, ‘This is not for me.’”

But years later, Toribio learned of a small Mexican eatery for sale in Henderson, Ky. Thinking of his brother’s successful business in Atlanta, he told himself, “At least I’m going to give it a try.” Toribio now owns two Los Toribio Mexican restaurants in Henderson.

Toribio — a native of Jalisco, a Mexican state on the Pacific coast — was 13 years old when he arrived in the United States in 1973. After stints in Texas, Florida, and Georgia, he worked as manager of housekeeping and maintenance for Nordstrom department stores in California. When a relative called to tell him about Cerro de la Silla, a Mexican restaurant for sale, Toribio felt ready for the opportunity to own a business. In 1994, he moved to Henderson with his family.

The original restaurant, renamed Los Toribio, has been replaced by two other locations. In 1996, Toribio opened a restaurant south of John James Audubon State Park on U.S. Highway 41. The ranch-style building, painted a cheerful shade of coral, is a 10-minute drive from Downtown Evansville. In 2005, another Los Toribio opened in a new building on South Green Street. The off-the-beaten-path dining destination requires a slightly longer haul for people north of the Ohio River, but the restaurant’s character makes it worth the drive, as does the menu of traditional Mexican dishes.

The attractive brick building features a patio with a tiered fountain. When I visited Los Toribio with two friends for a weeknight dinner, heavy rain prevented us from sitting outdoors. Still, the brightly decorated interior was a welcome contrast to the dreary weather. Larger-than-life wooden sculptures of a mariachi band line the entryway, and the restaurant has a sunny, south-of-the-border feel with green, orange, and yellow walls; painted murals; tiled tabletops; colorful carved furniture; and a festive bar area.

Toribio gives Gloria, his Colombian wife of 26 years, the credit for the interior design. “I always used to (decorate with) the colors of the flag — red, green, and white,” he says with a laugh. “She said, ‘I don’t want to see that anymore.’”

The menu, too, has a distinct touch. From unique presentation (my margarita was served in an unusually wide, shallow glass) to an unfamiliar dish (cactus salad), my group’s evening was full of small details that set the experience apart from other Mexican restaurants.

The first came when our waiter brought a basket of chips and two dishes of salsa. One salsa was mild with a thinner consistency; the other was spicier and thicker. “In other Mexican restaurants, they serve only one kind of salsa,” Toribio explains. “I made it a little different with two salsas at a time. People can decide what they want.” (As the menu notes, “Not all Mexican food is spicy hot.”)[pagebreak]

For an appetizer, we ordered the intriguing cactus salad, a dish that none of us had spotted on any other restaurant menu. The cactus — peeled, sliced, and cooked until slippery and tender — topped a bed of lettuce and tomato. A heap of shredded white cheese finished the dish. It sounded exotic, but Toribio says cactus salad is commonplace in Mexico: “That’s what I grew up with.” (However, he prefers cactus bean soup, another appetizer at Los Toribio.)

Entrees include the usual suspects, such as tacos, burritos, and tostadas, as well as dishes that reflect Toribio’s upbringing in the coastal state of Jalisco. The area is known for tender pork tips called carnitas, he says, and for seafood dishes. Los Toribio’s seafood selections include a whole fried tilapia and chilled gazpacho soup with shrimp, vegetables, and tomato juice.

One of my dining companions ordered shrimp fajitas, which arrived sizzling with slender slices of onion and chunks of tomato. The other friend’s enchiladas were topped with a mildly spicy brown sauce, a departure from the bright red, often canned variety. I opted for mole poblano, tender chicken in a pool of dark, velvety sauce made from Mexican chocolate, red chilies, and peanuts. In Mexico, the labor-intensive sauce is reserved for special occasions such weddings and quinceañeras. Closer to home, mole dishes aren’t available at all Mexican restaurants, so I relished the chance to try Los Toribio’s version: a beautiful balance of sweet and spicy flavors. The chicken dish was served with mild yet flavorful rice, creamy refried beans topped with melted cheese, and warm tortillas.

The menu includes a small dessert section with flan, sopapilla (a fried tortilla topped with honey, cinnamon, and butter), and ice cream, but a real treat is stopping by Los Toribio for the occasional mariachi band performance. Then, Toribio dons a charro suit, worn by traditional Mexican horsemen, and travels from table to table singing with the band.

Singing is just one of Toribio’s passions outside the restaurant business — which, despite his initial reluctance as a 20-something, he calls “a good thing to get into.” More than a decade after arriving in Henderson, Toribio sponsors an annual middle-school football tournament called Los Toribio Bowl and serves on the Henderson County Tourist Commission, city-county Human Rights Commission, and Methodist Hospital board of directors. After stints in four other states, “I’m in the community,” Toribio says. “This is home.”

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