I never know what to say when people ask me what my favorite restaurant is in Boston. What kind of favorite restaurant? S&I Thai in Allston is probably my most frequent go-to, with Super Fusion a close second for everyday sushi. I've been known to drive 40 minutes to Fuloon in Malden—for take-out. And when the occasion calls for fancy, I'm regularly wowed by what comes out of the kitchens at Bondir, Rendezvous Central Square, and Craigie on Main.
But my all-around favorite? Probably Toro, Ken Oringer's tapas bar in the South End. Somehow it seems to be just as cut out for grabbing dinner on the fly—once you're seated, the food comes fast—as it is for lingering with friends over small plates and pitchers of sangria. (Bottoms up to the white sangria, by the way. It's smooth, mineral-y, watermelon-y, and not too sweet.) More importantly, the menu is almost 50 items deep, and the flavors are so bright and full that I have to reign myself in from ordering multiple rounds of each dish.
That said, I've got a few A-listers that always make the first cut with the drink order: the Pan con Tomate ($4), the Pimientos del Padron ($8), the Gambas al Ajillo ($12), and the house-specialty Maiz Asado con Aioli y Queso Cotija ($8).
Direct translation of "pan con tomate": bread with tomato. And that's really all this is: toasted pieces of rustic, light-textured bread topped with grated tomato, garlic, good olive oil, and coarse salt. Dead simple, and one of the most delicious things on the menu—even in winter.
Pimientos del Padron have apparently become trendy lately, and I can say that because I recently saw—and purchased—a package of the once-hard-to-find Spanish peppers at a local Boston market. They're fried in olive oil until they're charred and wrinkled here and there, then sprinkled with coarse salt. Eating them is sort of like playing Russian Roulette: You'll pop a good handful of them and find that they're sweet and mellow, when a hot one comes out of nowhere and leaves you breathing fire. What a rush.
I haven't been to many tapas restaurants, but gambas al ajillo, or shrimp in garlic oil, has been on the menu at all of them. None of them looks or tastes like the version at Toro, though. Instead of gently cooking a handful of marinated shrimp in garlicky olive oil per the traditional approach, Oringer sears them hard on the ultra-hot plancha (according to Toro alum Kenji, it's a custom-designed 1 1/2-inch slab of steel that heats up to 900 degrees) before tossing them in a glossy, buttery shrimp and lobster stock reduction and garnishing with a handful of Korean chili pepper threads.
Mexican street corn is the so-called specialty of the house, and people go absolutely crazy for it. The local NBC station even ran a story on it last year. (Great business move on Oringer's part: Most popular dish on the menu is corn? Restaurateur's dream come true.) The ears are split; charred on a grill; coated with aioli, crumbled cotija cheese, and a touch of espelette pepper; and served with lime wedges. It's about the best thing to happen to corn on the cob since those little pronged holders that stick into the sides of the ears. (Note: If you go for lunch, they make a terrific burger that's available "messy"—that is, topped with the corn schmear. Highly recommended.)