Los Dados / Toloache

Two more Mexican eateries, still waiting for a winner.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5
Los Dados

Los Dados, 73 Gansevoort St at Washington St (646-810-7290). Subway: A, C, E to 14th St; L to Eighth Ave. Mon–Thu, Sun 11:30am–3pm, 5:30–10:30pm; Fri, Sat 11:30am–3pm, 5:30–11:30pm. Average main course: $16.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Toloache, 251 W 50th St between Broadway and Eighth Ave (212-581-1818). Subway: C, E, 1 to 50th St. Mon–Thu, Sun 5–11pm; Fri, Sat 5–11:30pm. Average main course: $24.

The Pinche Bueno cocktail at Los Dados

Photograph: Jeff Gurwin

The influence of all things Mexican—there are now more than 20 million Mexican-Americans in the U.S.—has affected the national taste, but New York is still trailing. You’d swear that Gotham, where demographic trends can be detected through what people eat, is receiving an influx of die-hard locavores or Texan barbecuers, rather than our neighbors to the south. Yet somehow, Mexican restaurants remain our culinary Achilles heel. With two of the best local Mexican chefs, Sue Torres and Julian Medina, recently opening new restaurants—Los Dados and Toloache, respectively—there’s a reason for hope, however fleeting.

Both prove fun hangouts: the Meatpacking District’s Los Dados feels one part roadhouse (complete with honky-tonk music and prayer candles) and one part lounge (Gothic chandeliers and dining alcoves), with a bustling bar (no surprise, given that the backers are also behind nearby Lotus). Toloache fits in the theater district: The bright, richly appointed duplex is adorned with beautiful tiles and murals depicting Mexican peasant scenes, and glowing silver boxes hang from the ceiling.

Torres, who made her mark at Chelsea’s impressive Sueños, classifies Los Dados as “Mexican home cooking” and focuses on the staples: enchiladas, tacos and ceviche. Little is memorable here, though she improves on some basics, such as the satsifyingly thick, unusually sweet tortilla chips, paired with cilantro-heavy guacamole. The shrimp-and-pork tamal scores with firm texture and a nearly caramelized ancho sauce, and a chili-powered pineapple salsa dominates a decent appetizer of rare tuna on crispy tortilla chips.

Roasted garlic shrimp at Toloache

Photograph: Jeff Gurwin

Too much is humdrum, especially Torres’s meats. Bitter achiote seeds and cured red onions do little to rescue a flavor-challenged shredded pork starter, which sits plaintively on a folded tortilla. The barbecued lamb taco came off like a bland sloppy joe. (Interestingly, while the dining room menu offers a small cross-section, a far larger swath of tacos and tortas is sold at an adjacent takeout spot.) The most impressive course was dessert. Items like the barely sweet churros with a Mexican chocolate dipping sauce and soft empanadas filled with tropical fruit, chili and sweet cheese, tasted as if they were made for adults.

This fact goes without saying for Medina, who jams Toloache’s lengthy menu with palate-challenging options. The chef, who’s helmed half of the city’s haute Mexican kitchens (Maya, Pampano, Zocalo), plays to his upscale strengths, with emphases on ambitious concoctions and updated standards. Take the dozen taco fillings, ranging from sweetbreads to foie gras (which, in combination with black beans, loses its luxury), and the pièce de résistance: the grasshopper taco. The first crunchy taste recalls Cracker Jack peanuts, then devolves into the pungent flavor of prunes.

When not experimenting with ingredients, Medina shows flashes of brilliance. His gorgeous and well-conceived shrimp entrée features jumbo garlicky crustaceans atop a mélange of autumnal beans and squash­. A dish like the short ribs, however, braised in pomegranate but devoid of a single fruity note, brings the overall experience back downhill.

Perhaps the answer to our South of the Border woes sits at the bottom of a glass. These are good drinking spots—Toloache has almost 100 tequilas, and Los Dados makes an excellent red sangria (infused with enough cinnamon to project mulled wine) and a destructive cocktail, the Pinche Bueno, that involves tequila, blackberry juice, and a shot of mescal floating in a lime boat on top. It doesn’t make the meals taste better, but it may make the seemingly eternal wait for good Mexican food just a bit more pleasant.