Colorado’s robust population of talented chefs has inspired us to launch a new “5 Questions” series. In these Q&A-style pieces, 5280’s food editors catch up with local culinary pros to learn more about their food and drink obsessions, approaches to cooking, what to expect at the restaurants they serve, and more.
To kick off our series, we chatted with chef Oscar Padilla of Cherry Creek’s Toro Latin Kitchen & Lounge, which specializes in Central and South American dishes infused with global flavors. The restaurant celebrated its first anniversary in July, and Padilla has been at the helm of the Richard Sandoval outpost since the beginning. Here, Padilla dishes about his upbringing between Los Angeles and Mexico, what he loves cooking the most, his secret obsession with hot dogs, and more.
5280: If you were to cook one dish for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
Oscar Padilla: I think you know the answer: ceviche. I love a lot of Mexican dishes, but ceviche for me represents a combination of cultures and traditions in Latin America. My Latin American history is what I want to represent in my dishes—I love fresh seafood, fresh flavors, amazing color. One of the more important things about ceviche is [that you can] share it. You go to the restaurant, you request your appetizer, your entrée, but ceviche is for the center of the table to share with your friends and your family, and that creates amazing feelings around the table. You share with love; ceviche is love for me.
Sounds like you have a strong connection between food and family. What did you eat growing up and how has it influenced your cooking?
My grandma showed me how to make molcajete sauce [and it was my favorite growing up]. It’s so simple: It’s tomatoes, onions, chiles, but if you put love in there, you don’t need anything else—maybe a spoon, tortilla, and salsa. That’s it. My grandma was my first teacher in my life, and she made amazing moles, spicy sauce, different kinds of pasta. Part of my family’s from Spain, and she made an amazing paella. We have something similar [at Toro], the lomo saltado, which is a creamy rice with sour cream, cotija cheese, a little bit of acid, and we top it with a salted filet mignon, with sauce, and peppers, and different vegetables. It’s not paella, but the combination is similar. We use the same passion and love that I learned from my grandmother.
Would you rather have a hot dog at the ballpark or a homemade sandwich on a hike?
Ah, hot dogs. I love tacos—I have tacos in my blood. But I have a secret addiction to burgers and hot dogs. I lived for a couple years in New York City, and I love hot dogs from Chicago. Here in Denver there’s a couple places—like Biker Jim’s makes amazing dogs. My favorite style is a Chicago dog—no ketchup please; only spicy mustard, onion, something spicy, the sausage, and the bread. That’s it. Boom.
If you could serve a meal to three people, who would they be and why?
I have two people in mind right now. Number one is Elon Musk. He is making some huge things around the world right now with his company. And the other person is Mr. Obama. I wonder what would happen if such incredible minds taste my food and [maybe] discover something different from me. I don’t feel like I’m as talented as they are, but I have this feeling like what would happen when they taste my food?
And the other person that’s a little bit more personal is my grandfather. He died 14 years ago when I was starting my career, and he didn’t have the opportunity to see this part of my story. I’m in love with food because my grandma taught me to cook, but the big lover of food in my family was my grandfather. He showed me the traditions in Mexico. He showed me that love for the family. My grandfather showed me how to bring love to the dinner for everybody. So those are the three people I’d want to see.
What do you want people to know about the menu at Toro?
We talk a lot about ceviche, but people also love our empanadas. Sweet corn empanadas are a best-seller. It’s a traditional dish from Argentina, and we have these puff pastries filled with sweet corn, South American chiles, and a couple different cheeses. It’s warm, creamy, juicy, spicy, crispy, and we accompany that with a little bit of avocado foam with yuzu and fresh homemade chimichurri—this combination of cilantro and olive oil with a couple spices. People love it.