Tocaya Organica’s ‘modern organic Mexican’ food is worth battling the crowds

By Richard Foss

Fresh ingredients lend bold flavors to the Baja chipotle taco with sea bass and the barrio-style taco with carne asada
Photo by Courtnay Robbins

Years ago I was a member of an informal club of people who had driven at least 100 miles just to dine at a restaurant. The record was 140 miles, the distance from my house to Pea Soup Andersen’s near Solvang. A mass case of munchies at a party sent a caravan of cars there. All I can say about that decision was that we were young, gas was cheap, and we were carried away by enthusiasm for a goofy idea. The soup was good too.

I mention this not only as fond reminiscence of sillier days, but to illustrate that if food is really good, some people will go to a lot of effort to get it. The challenges aren’t all about travel; sometimes it’s strolling a dicey neighborhood or chancing a restaurant’s eccentric schedule.

No obstacle was immediately apparent at Tocaya Organica, the popular “Modern Organic Mexican” place on Pacific Avenue in Venice. Sure, there was a line out the door, but that’s the situation with a lot of places. They’ve been open more than a year, so they have this thing down, right?

We left two people to hold an available table while the other two got in line to order, figuring that there would be menus posted conveniently, but … nope. An uninformative list was over the counter, but that was it. One of the table-holders had the bright idea of going online to read the menu, so they texted what they wanted. The two of us in line tried to do the same, but reading your phone isn’t easy while being jostled by people trying to squeeze by with take-out orders. We managed to figure out what we wanted except for drinks, because the wines, beers and cocktails aren’t on the online menu. When we were almost at the front it became clear that the people ahead of us hadn’t figured out the smartphone idea, because they had questions about every item.

Once we got to the counter things weren’t bad. The employee there couldn’t hear my soft-voiced friend very well amid the hubbub, so orders had to be repeated, but it didn’t take long.

Our side items started arriving at our table almost immediately, and they justified the hassle.

Guacamole arrived topped with pomegranate seeds — a nifty idea — and served with good, crisp chips.

Burrito Mexicano with black beans, Spanish rice, diablo salsa and chicken tinga
Photo by Courtnay Robbins

The street corn topped with cotija cheese had a nice mix of vegetable sweetness and chipotle heat, and though the roasted cauliflower was cooked softer than I prefer the flavor was excellent.

The sweet corn tamale was even better — these are sometimes almost sugary, but the flavor in this one tasted natural and went well with the piquant roasted pepper salsa.

The only item that didn’t hit the mark was a side of Brussels sprouts described as pan-seared that arrived with no caramelization and slightly undercooked. Even these weren’t bad, just not up to the standard of the rest.

My friends and I had each ordered two tacos: mine with chicken and sea bass, theirs with tofu and pea protein, as they are vegetarians. Mine arrived as ordered, theirs with chicken and beef — apparently the difficulty in communicating across the counter hadn’t been sorted out as completely as we thought. We convinced the food runner that the vegetarians would not under any circumstances have ordered food that included animals, and we appreciated that he arranged replacements on the double-quick.

Once everybody got what they wanted, satisfaction reigned. I had ordered the chipotle-rubbed seared sea bass and jalapeno jack in a “Baja Chipotle” taco with shaved cabbage, sweet chipotle sauce, cilantro and a bit of chipotle crema. The sauces were moderately applied so didn’t swamp the fillings, and the fish with a slightly sweet and spicy caramelized glaze fit in beautifully with the other ingredients.

My other taco was made in their “Cali Green” style, which means the only thing on the tortilla besides proteins was onion and avocado vinaigrette. That served to show off the flavors of Manchego cheese and chicken tinga stewed with adobo sauce, tomatoes, onion and pasilla chilies. The mix of fresh and smoked chile flavors was an admirable combination with the chicken and dusting of cheese. I wouldn’t normally think to put a full-flavored cheese like Manchego on a taco, but it certainly worked here.

My vegetarian friends devoured theirs down to the last scrap before I got a taste, so I can’t report on the combinations of tofu and pea protein balls. They were very happy with them, and when I return to Tocaya Organica I’ll probably find out for myself. But I can report that Prosecco goes very nicely with Mexican food, and I might have had another glass if it didn’t involve going through that line again.

Would I drive 100 miles to dine at Tocaya Organica? Probably not, but then again I don’t have to. But I will endure their ordering system, make sure the person at the counter hears the request, and get a paper copy of my receipt so I can check it. These are just small inconveniences en route to top-quality healthy Mexican food, and that’s what you’ll find here.

Tocaya Organica 1715 Pacific Ave., Venice (424) 744-8692