By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
If you cracked open the proverbial restaurant dictionary and tried to find this new spot in the heart of downtown Santa Monica, you might try looking under “high energy”—a pair of words best describing the food and vibe of newbie purveyors of fresh, organic eats Tocaya Organica.
Established in 2016, Tocaya Organica has already made a swift ascent into the competitive world of fast casual. With the flagship restaurant in Venice, Tocaya Organica is currently planting flags all over the Westside.
This Mexican eatery, an offshoot of parent restaurant Toca Madera, is quickly expanding into a national chain, intent on branching out to some 46 outlets. There’s already a restaurant in Miami with another to come.
Back to Santa Monica, where, only a 10-minute roll down the hill, Tocaya Organica recently took over the former storefront of Aesthus, a high-end Euro-Cali fusion restaurant and bar. Tocaya Organica has made better use of its space, trading the sparse, dimly lit and somewhat sterile environment of its predecessor into a bright, open and inviting hang.
So what’s on the menu at Tocaya? A lot for a spot that might best be summed up as a Mexican-themed answer to Tender Greens.
Salads and bowls prove strong here, driven by the twin engines of lettuce and avocado. The Tostada Salad, a towering heap of shaved butter lettuce on a crispy corn tortilla layered with black beans, roma tomato, diced red onion, corn salsa and spicy citrus dressing, doesn’t disappoint in both quantity and taste.
The Fajita Del Rey bowl, a delicious deep dive of sautéed peppers and onions, Spanish rice, black beans, vegan chipotle crema, guacamole and pico de gallo—all simultaneously competing to woo your palate—which you can get with chopped achiote chicken (organic orange spice marinated grilled
free-range chicken breast) or carne asada and queso fresco cheese.
There’s also The Venice Beach bowl, a tip o’ the sombrero to the original Tocaya that is one of the many vegan delicacies offered here.
For the entrée, pick a protein and choose one side and, voila, you’ve got lunch or dinner. We enjoyed four variety of tacos, combining everything from carne asada (finely honed organic backyard barbecue-style grilled skirt steak with a cilantro jalapeño marinade, coriander and cumin) with avocado to sea bass (locally sourced, wild caught, chipotle-rubbed and seared) with a drizzle of sweet sauce. Barrio Style means your choice of protein comes with tomatill salsa, avocado, diced red onion and cilantro.
I leaned toward the Al Pastor tacos—marinated shredded beef and queso fresco with grilled pineapple salsa and arbol salsa.
The portions are satisfying—a notch above appetizer bites but pregnant with ingredients.
The restaurant also offers a variety of self-assembly burritos but my favorite single item is the Quesadilla. A meal in itself, four hearty tortilla pockets arrive stuffed with flavorful beef and queso cheese, which will surely make for a sturdy meal.
Tocaya Organica only offers a pair of desserts: one scrumptious and one kind of lackluster. The latter, Cinnamon Chia Pudding, to its credit, is not overly sweet and should go over well with the health-conscious in-crowd but I found it overall banal.
However, if you’re in the mood of full-on dessert, their Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich comes highly recommended—a nice melding of Mexican and American favorites and the portions are more than adequate.
On a side note, you can also order Barrio Fruit Bowl to hit that sweet spot, which is basically sliced watermelon, mango, pineapple and jicama with a sprinkle of chipotle powder and lime. Another excellent touch of sweetness comes embedded in the tasty Sweet Corn Tamales they serve here.
Feeding the high-energy vibe here: A full-tilt bar serving such yummy, sweet Aguas Frescas, speakers pumping EDM nonstop, every item’s colorful presentation (the Frida Kahlo green-and-yellow of the Guacamole with plantains is Instagram-ready!) and a transparent kitchen where Chef Christian Sanchez and his crew circulate to fulfill orders of Tocaya’s hot and healthy Mexican fare.
Tocaya Organica is the perfect spot for students on the run looking to fuel up before exams or the fitness-happy set looking for a delicious way to squash a post-jog appetite. The eatery is clearly here to stay, and like said runners, this restaurant chain is pacing itself to go the distance like a marathon, not a sprint.