As in "you can't judge a book by its cover," you can't always figure a restaurant by the exterior because it would be absurdly easy to walk by the rather dark-looking "storefront" that's home to Toloache 82, one of the best Mexican eateries on the UES if not NYC. The three rooms are darkish with candles spiffed up with a Calavera-tile-backed bar up front and sunburst medallions on the walls and there is an open air patio in the rear that's a pleasure in good weather (hint: if you want to eat here, mention it when making a reservation which is a good idea regardless as the place is incredibly popular.)
Service is smiling and professional from the greeting by the hostess to the waitstaff although there is a tendency to upsell more expensive margaritas than the house version which is excellent and not super-sweet.
Toloache 82 is helmed by chef.co-owner Julian Medina who has been turning out fabulous Latin cuisine for fifteen-plus years, both in Mexico City and the Big Apple. The restaurant is a far cry from typical enchiladas- and- burrito assembly lines but instead offers modern Mexican interpretations of the fare making it a diner's delight.
Margaritas come in variations including one with hibiscus and blueberries that's a little sweet. There are also other cocktails like the Mezcalita de Pina with mezcal, agave, lime and grilled pineapple, a comprehensive wine list, red or white sangria and lots of Mexican beers.
By all means start with one of the guacamoles ranging from mild through spicy that come with chips, a dish of chili for dipping and the nice touch of warm, soft tacos, either flour or corn. Toloache, (one of several sibling restaurants in different parts of the city), is named after a flowering plant famed in Mexico for its use in love potions which does not appear on the menu. What does show up in one taco take are chapulines, aka grasshoppers, that are a big thing in Oaxacan cooking. My group passed on these but went for the Pescado (fish version) with Baja-style fluke and jicama slaw as well as the Carne Asado with grilled skirt steak and chipotle salsa, both fresh and distinctive.
You can book a private party here or dine Sunday through Mondays from 5pm-10pm and to 11 PM Tuesdays through Thursdays. Saturday and Sunday brunch runs from 11am-3pm. At brunch, the pork carnitas sandwich with pickled red cabbage and roasted chile de arbol-tomato salsa is a knock-out ; even the burger of ground sirloin with chipotle-cabbage slaw, queso fundido and spicy fries is a cut above with a refined Mexican approach. Vegetarians will be happy with the abundant menu offerings and the Postres, as in Pastel De Chocolate, Mexican chocolate cake served warm with a generous scoop of dulce de leche ice cream and flan ,which I usually find a bore but here love with its raspberry sauce and caramel popcorn pansy flowers, is not overpoweringly sweet and a great finale. The whole place has an air of gaiety that contributes to the pleasure of a wonderful Mexican meal.