Above: Rene (seated) and Rich Ayala at El Toro. Photo by Lindsay Rudney duPhily.
Brothers find a home and an opportunity at El Toro Cantina
By Matt Morrissette
In September of 1996, Humberto Gomez answered the culinary prayer of many a resident of Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood by opening El Toro at 624 N. Union Street.
Though flush with restaurants, including the stalwart Mrs. Robino’s, the commercial district offered little beyond the obvious Italian restaurants and numerous places serving American bar-and-grill fare. The small but mighty take-out location quickly established itself as a staple in the community and separated itself by excelling at both Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican food.
In 2007, 17-year-old Rene Ayala, a transplant from Los Angeles along with his
parents and brother Ricardo, was cleaning office buildings after school. It was at this job that Rene’s manager told him of his friend’s restaurant and a need for a bilingual person to take orders and deliver food. After getting in touch, Rene was hired and started immediately.
Maybe two months after I started, I asked Humberto if I could bring my little brother with me because I didn’t want to leave him home alone due to both of my parents working such long hours,” Rene says. “I would bring Ricardo with me, and he would do his homework and get a bite while I worked my shift. After a while, he started helping us out doing small things around the restaurant until eventually we started working together and have ever since.”
Eleven years later in 2018, the commercial space at the corner of Union and 6th streets became available. It was the former home of beloved New Orleans-themed bar The Blue Parrot Bar & Grille, which closed after a wild decade-long run, and its successor, the short-lived The Wicked Vine. With Rene and Ricardo as co-owners and kitchen manager and dining room manager respectively, El Toro Cantina Bar & Restaurant opened a mere two blocks from the original location.
Though one might assume the much larger sit-down location would replace the original take-out spot, the El Toro team chose to keep both locations active, a move that paid dividends during the slow process of the Cantina gaining traction as well as the unwelcome arrival of the unprecedented global pandemic in early 2020.
“It’s nice to be able to have both locations open while they’re so close to each other,” Ricardo explains. “I’m glad our clientele has the option to go back and forth from each location for their different wants and needs. As far as COVID, it was very tough on our dine-in restaurant due to the obvious restrictions. We are very thankful to our awesome regulars that kept supporting us through those tough times. Fortunately, our take-out location was well-suited to get us through those tough times.”
Rene expands on the value of the take-out location and the challenges of the pandemic.
“At first, we were unsure of what would happen,” he says. “I recall one day we were all sitting on the patio and didn’t see any cars on Union Street and thought it was over for the cantina since its entire purpose was for customers to dine in. After some brainstorming, we knew we had to venture out and start using delivery apps and to-go alcohol drink pouches effectively to stay in the game. Luckily, it worked amazingly, and the take-out location only grew during the pandemic due to so many people being stuck at home.”
Unlike the brothers of many a famous rock band who are infamously unable to get along (the Gallagher brothers of Oasis or the Davies brothers of The Kinks) or the numerous tales of family businesses being run into the ground by feuds and bickering, the Ayala brothers represent a wholesome breath of fresh air in their mutual love and respect and their shared pursuit of common goals.
“It’s been great working with Rene,” says Ricardo. “We grew up together, so nothing has ever changed. We feed off each other and have nothing but motivation to push forward El Toro’s name in the best way possible. We have a shared desire to keep pushing the brand forward, and we have a lot of work to do still. We’re always striving to get our family-owned restaurant to its full potential.”
Rene is equally enthusiastic when discussing Ricardo.
“At first, working with my brother was supposed to be temporary, but now I can’t see myself working with anyone else,” he says. “His charm and work ethic are hard to come by and he makes everything run so smoothly at the Cantina.”
With two thriving locations, killer house margaritas, a popular Taco Tuesday Night, the best and largest outdoor dining patio in Little Italy, and two brothers you can truly root for, El Toro is poised to be an institution in Wilmington for years to come.