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El Toro Bravo's chimichanga

Tex-Mex cuisine gets a bum rap from the food cognoscenti. It's often seen as a lame Americanization of traditional Mexican food, which ignores the reality that Tex-Mex dishes have a history and identity all their own, with a complicated array of geographical distinctions that make even the term "Tex-Mex" oversimplified. I get the criticism; Sarasota Tex-Mex is often predictable and bland. But place a well-crafted chimichanga down in front of me and you know that thing's disappearing in 60 seconds or less. To echo chef and cookbook author Rick Bayless: "I can get down with a burrito just like everybody else."

Sarasota's El Toro Bravo refers to itself as serving "Southwest Mexican food," and indeed its menu hews to the icons of that region. You'll find fajitas and chimichangas, burritos and enchiladas, with an emphasis on beef that's a Tex-Mex signature and a series of solid $8.75 lunch specials.

The restaurant recently moved into new digs on Clark Road, although it didn't move very far—less than one mile down the road from the strip mall location it had occupied for 11 years. The new space is roughly four times as big as the old spot, with a full bar and a bigger kitchen and more storage that has given chef Ruben Caban, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Connie Caban, a bit more breathing room.

One common Tex-Mex limitation is the cuisine's heaviness. Enchiladas bookended by refried beans and seasoned rice is the kind of dish that leads to head-on-desk post-lunch work naps. Caban dodges that trap by brightening up his lunch specials with fresh greens rather than starchy sides. Caban also shuns lard and avoids the deep fryer when he can, and he hand-picks produce from Detwiler's Farm Market.

A chimichanga platter comes out looking beautiful, with the long tortilla in the middle topped with melted cheese, a dollop of guacamole and bumps of sour cream, and crunchy beds of greens and tomatoes on either side. Caban's red chili sauce takes more than 24 hours to make, and that labor pays off. The sauce is ultra-smooth, with a rusty hue and a strong but not overpowering chili tang. My one criticism: The beef is a bit of an afterthought. With so much else going on, I can barely taste it. The restaurant's guacamole, meanwhile, is terrific—rich and ideally seasoned. The guacamole salad appetizer ($6.75) comes with a generous portion of the green stuff (about the size of an overstuffed softball) that makes for a great dip with Toro's well-salted tortilla chips.

Discerning diners today often get hung up on authenticity contests, but I abide by a simple rule: Is the food tasty? At El Toro Bravo, it is.

El Toro Bravo is loctaed at 3218 Clark Road, Sarasota, and is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Call (941) 924-0006 or visit the restaurant's website for more info.

Follow Cooper Levey-Baker’s never-ending quest for cheap food on Twitter. Email him at cooperl@sarasotamagazine.com. Read past 10 Bucks or Less columns here.

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