Tomatillo Taco Joint is the culinary equivalent of elevator music.
I’m not just saying my meal wasn’t memorable — it wasn’t, but who’s expecting that? — but that it had no personality. To the postmodernist in me, it was a hyper-realistic, Play-Doh diorama kind of meal. At Tomatillo, one gets the sense that the cultural origin of the taco is not Mexico but Disneyland.
The way you order at Tomatillo is, not unlike at Chipotle, by choosing some permutation of filling, stuffing and toppings for your taco, burrito, burrito bowl or taco salad, which, by the way, are the exact same options Chipotle offers. The only discernible difference with Chipotle is that Tomatillo offers citrus-marinated shrimp and tempura-battered Baja fish (both for $7.35) whereas Chipotle only offers the usual repertoire of chicken, beef, pork and veggies.
Point for Tomatillo!
So, for example, I ordered a burrito bowl stuffed with cilantro and lime-flavored rice and vegetarian black beans, filled it with the Baja fish and topped it off with pico de gallo, shredded cheese and guacamole ($0.95 extra). The one problem was that I was handed a burrito instead — which, to be honest, was my fault, since I could have corrected the employee when he rolled it right in front of me. In any case, it didn’t take long for the bloated burrito to break through the thin, silky tortilla, so I ended up just eating a messier version of the burrito bowl.
The fish was comfortably soft — and my friend who ordered a steak burrito ($7.35) said the same for the meat — but I couldn’t exactly taste it, or anything else for that matter, except LIME. I guess whoever seasoned the cilantro and lime-flavored rice was pretty squeeze-happy, and I didn’t exactly mind the taste until I realized I couldn’t fill up a 600-word review with one flavor. But that’s really all I felt.
In retrospect, the monolithic flavor is a snug metaphor for the Tomatillo experience, which is something akin to eating in a bunker, or vacationing in a walled Playa del Carmen resort. Sure, the color scheme of orange and olive green was tasteful, the brick wall sophisticated, the floor spotless; the soundtrack (Shins, Vampire Weekend) was cool. But the tact of it all bored me, too. The token hints to Mexico (cacti in stone grinders, little framed pictures of ambiguously Mexican landscapes) were playing it too safe. And the gaudy lineup of neon Jarritos bottles could only be an ironic gesture.
To its credit, Tomatillo goes bold with the salsa. The habanero chili sauce hit me at full blast, and the salsa verde was thick and robust; both work as complements to the main meal. I was less taken with the aji amarillo, which tasted overwhelmingly of banana peppers. A Peruvian friend who ate with me noted that the aji, a traditionally Peruvian paste, was too watery and indelicate.
The most polarizing dish we ordered was shrimp tacos garnished with corn salsa, shredded cheese, pico de gallo and sour cream. My suitemate — a serial Yelp reviewer with a refined palate — was turned off by the corn salsa’s taste of canning fluid, so another suitemate finished it off with a grin, pointing out the piquant and inexplicable aftertaste of Doritos. I was pleasantly surprised by the generous portion of shrimp on the taco, though it was chewier than expected — especially considering how delicate the fish and steak had been.
Mostly because it defies categorization, Tomatillo deflects facile judgment. But that leaves me with only two thoughts: LIME! and bleh.