Andrew Toto, 34, went from tattoos to tacos. Today, he’s beverage director and general manager at Dorchester’s Yellow Door Taqueria. He paid his dues: Before becoming a taco titan, he worked in shellfish sales at Pangea Shellfish Company, bartended at the Seaport’s Row 34, and ran the front desk at a tattoo parlor during his self-described “angst years” as an aspiring ink artist. On Sept. 6 and 7, Yellow Door pops up at sister restaurant Lion’s Tail in the South End for a taco takeover.
What’s the first restaurant that you ever visited in Boston? My memory is hazy. I grew up right here, and I have so many food memories of Boston. But the one that rings the clearest is visiting my grandmother on the North Shore every Sunday. We’d take a trip from Milton to Saugus in the car. If we weren’t eating at her place, meatballs every Sunday, we were going to Prince [Pizzeria], the Kowloon, and Hilltop Steakhouse. Every Sunday that was the tradition, the people-watching and getting to order my meal off the menu.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I think one of the most glaring things, and I’m sure it’s a common answer, is the divide between front and back of the house in regards to wages. It’s something that’s a struggle in my space due to the size of the restaurant being so small. . . . It’s super important, and it’s an ongoing struggle and needs to be looked at. Also, a clearer focus or more attention to quality of life for employees, with mental health and substance abuse problems that run rampant in our industry. A lot of people overlook it.
What other restaurants do you visit? The Townshend in Quincy Center, I love to plug. I grew up in the industry with a lot of those guys. Bringing their talent down my way has been a blessing. It’s a haven for me. I scribble things down there where I can. Steel & Rye is a neighbor of ours in the Lower Mills area, and I find myself at their bar a couple nights a week.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Immersing myself the past two years in Mexican cuisine more than ever, I was excited to try a taqueria north of the city. I ordered every taco off the menu, and everything was pretty bland and one-note. It was disappointing, The build-up was so great. I starved myself all day, and it was a bust.
How could the Boston food scene improve? I’m not a well-traveled guy. I’ve spent more time here than not. But as my daughter gets older, I get to travel more. I’ve fallen in love with other cities like Seattle and Nashville. There are more niche, focused concepts. You can go to a place where they’re not trying to please everybody. You walk in, and it’s crystal-clear what they’re doing and good at, and it’s the most successful way to be. . . . More often than not, we’re trying to please everybody.
How has the restaurant scene changed since you first arrived in Boston? Today is my birthday! I just turned 34, but I sound like I’m 54. I feel like I’ve been doing this a decent amount of time. I’ve seen it change, people’s willingness to hustle and earn their keep. I worked for a boat company in Boston, driving boats and bartending. Booze cruises. I worked in tattoo shops even younger, on the hospitality end of things. What I’m getting at is, I had to earn my keep, start as an apprentice. . . . Now everyone wants the instant gratification. Even dishwashers. I remember calling my mom saying, ‘I made $11!’ with tears in my eyes. I made it! I hire someone, and within the first two months, they’re asking for a raise. In their mind, it’s time. Late twenties, mid-twenties, that’s the status quo for them. I get that a lot.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. In this order: discerning; they know what they want. That [word] was drilled into me when I worked with the Island Creek group. I use it with my staff now. Informed. I think we’ve caught up over the years and people are more adventurous, more worldly, and more food-savvy. And loyal.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Gosh. I can’t say tacos; that’s what I do. The most overdone trend in Boston — that’s a tough one. The burger and tuna poke, they’re overdone. There are so many other things you can put in a menu. . . . And not enough attention to detail and individuality in spaces. I look at design as much as I look at food and drink. I walk into multiple new spaces and they have the same feel, look, all shopping at the same store. That side of things is very played out, and people should spend a little more time on the space itself. Very cold, industrial, the same World Market stools in multiple restaurants.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? Really good barbecue . . . good, heartfelt barbecue doesn’t happen as often in this city as it should. But now there’s Hot Chix, from a gentleman named Alex [Nystedt] who worked at Sportello and a general manager at Eventide [Alex Kim]. It’s an offshoot series they’re doing after falling in love with Nashville hot.
What are you reading? As cliché as it might sound, cookbooks. Mexican, South American cuisine cookbooks. And “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer has been on my nightstand since I entered the industry. People give it to me as a gift; it’s a mainstay for me.
How’s your commute? The best commute in Boston. I live diagonally across the street. I grew up on that side of Milton; it was an old abandoned chocolate factory, Baker, since my mom was a kid, and when I was in middle school it got transitioned into condos and apartments. In my mind it made perfect sense to move across the street. It’s a double-edged sword. It doesn’t lend itself to time off, but it’s convenient for my dogs. I just got a new puppy, just to make my life more hectic.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I hate olives. I love martinis, but I hate olives. I can’t stand them. When I worked at bars, I wouldn’t want to touch them.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? La Verdad, where Loretta’s Last Call is. It changed my thinking on Mexican cuisine. I knew the Old El Paso dinner kits that my mom would make at night or subpar cheesy run-of-the-mill tacos. To get a little older, spend time in the city with my friends, and go to a place like that and get a lengua taco, it was a whole different scene. I’d like to think that was the influence for some of what we do now.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I’d start with oysters at Row 34. I spent a lot of time working there, and I think Island Creek’s product is the best. It was a huge part of my industry life. Then Rebel Rebel in Somerville for a bottle of natural wine. And I’d finish up at Toro. They could take all my money. I would sit there all night..