The year had a rough start for Lerua’s Fine Mexican Foods, one of Tucson's oldest restaurants. After nearly a century in business, the restaurant had to move its location at 2005 E. Broadway Blvd. in order for the city to continue with its Broadway Boulevard expansion project.
While chef and co-owner Michael "Mikey" Hultquist Jr. is still looking for the perfect spot to reopen Lerua's, locals who miss his cuisine can still find it in Lerua's cousin restaurant, El Torero, in South Tucson.
Tucked away at 231 E. 26th St., Mikey's great aunt Adelina Borgaro opened El Torero in 1957. Mikey's uncle Brad Hultquist eventually took the reins.
In December 2019, El Torero closed after Brad had an aneurysm. Mikey and his father Michael Hultquist Sr. needed to close Lerua's before channeling their efforts into El Torero.
In May, Mikey quietly reopened El Torero. Nowadays, you can find Mikey, Michael Sr., and Brad working at the restaurant. Although the restaurant maintained a loyal clientele, the building itself was past its prime.
While Mikey is ambitious with plans to grow the restaurant, he has taken extra care to respect the restaurant's legacy and pay attention to what the neighborhood wants.
The restaurant features extensive renovations, including a new roof, ceiling, plumbing, flooring, bar, lighting, and bathrooms.
While the family spent a considerable amount of money polishing up the space, they had to take extra care in preserving the restaurant's identity.
Although the paint is fresh and the floor is shiny, bullfighter paintings remain. Warm lamps and neon cerveza signs still provide a distinct neighborhood feel.
The kitchen also features new equipment and prep space. Staff is a combination of old and new.
One of El Torero's long-time cooks, who is 80 years old and only recently retired, helped teach staff the house recipes. Another long-time cook stayed on board and still works in the kitchen.
The updated menu has been a source of contention; Mikey has kept the classic favorites, but also incorporated modern favorites and chef-driven specials.
Customers will still find the restaurant's signature 2 x 2 ($12.50), which includes two patty tacos and two cheese enchiladas. The plate is as nostalgic as it gets; the beef patties are humbly dressed with taco sauce, iceberg lettuce, and cotija cheese, served in a fried crunchy shell. The cheese enchiladas swim in an earthy red chili sauce.
The menu also offers other combo plates ranging from $9 to $16. The combos keep it simple with some varying combination of tacos, tamales, enchiladas, and other simple classics.
Plates of two tacos range from $7 to $19. The more affordable end of the spectrum features humble favorites such as Ground Beef ($7), Chicken ($8.50), and Carne de Chile Verde ($8). The opposite side of the spectrum features monster fish tacos such as the popular Mahi Mahi Tacos ($17), which has blackened mahi mahi with poblano slaw, crema, salsa tatemada, avocado sauce, avocado, queso fresco, and lime.
Another premium option, the Veracruz Fish Tacos ($19), features sea bass with salsa Veracruz, lettuce, avocado, avocado sauce, cilantro, queso fresco, crispy onions, and lime.
The Steak a la Mexicana ($26.50) features a cast iron skillet-seared rib eye with crispy potato wedges, beans, salsa ranchera, cilantro, and lime.
Don't overlook the Chicken Mole ($18), tucked away in the bottom corner of the menu. The juicy chicken breast swims in a mole sauce with a complex blend of fruits, chilhuacle peppers, and other spices. Despite the chocolate-brown color, the flavor is brighter and more fruit-forward than a typical mole negro or mole Poblano.
On Tuesday afternoon, a group of customers walked in on a whim.
"Google said you were closed today, but he really wanted to come in," a customer said, referring to a companion.
The restaurant is having issues getting their Google listing updated, but they're working it.
Not too long after receiving tacos and clearing their plates, the customer yelled across the restaurant to Mikey at the bar.
"These tacos are f***ing bomb."
Mikey raised his hands with joy.
"I just want to make people happy with my food," Mikey said.
When the restaurant reopened in May, the family took their time figuring everything out and getting used to the new space. A few weeks in, they received unexpected media coverage and people came pouring in before they were 100% ready.
While Mikey is the type of chef who always wants to see the restaurant improve, he is happy with the progress made so far.
"I'm pretty proud of the food coming out of that kitchen now," Mikey said.
El Torero is located at 231 E. 26th St. Operating hours are 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Wednesday, and 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. Thursday - Saturday. For more information, visit eltorerotucson.com.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he is best known locally for his work for Tucson Foodie, his work has also appeared in publications such as Bon...