El Sol review

El Sol just keeps getting better. When it opened on South Third Street two years ago, El Sol was a new look at Mexican food, a step up from the El Rodeo venues surrounding the city. The culinary emphasis was on seafood. Décor was subdued, service was okay and all the reviews were positive.

And in a shocking departure from local freebie Tex-Mex custom, Lisa and Juan Garcia thought so much of their warm, homemade tortilla chips that they charged money to put them on the table with salsa.

The honeymoon lasted while the owners worked out the menu, fixed the service and got their liquor license. Major downtown boosters like Randy King tucked into the guacamole and came out smiling. Dining critic Ellen Hughes said, “I like it a little bit more every time I come.”

Roll forward to Cinco de Mayo 2009, and it’s still true: real Mexican food has a good home here.

But probably we were thinking of that way-back-when menu when the mastermind of the crack Mode Review Team made a group reservation and asked for a starter sampler, “with all your appetizers.” As a result, we began the El Sol adventure with too many delicious dishes to comprehend, and possibly too many margaritas to aid in digesting the 13 appetizers.

(Previously on Mode, we mentioned our push for tasting menus. We are starting with appetizers, and we may extend it to entrees and desserts, but for now here it is: we want app medleys, Chef — all your best apps on a couple plates that we can pass around. Really.)

We began with the Queso Fundido – melted Mexican cheese and chorizo (a spicy sausage) with diced poblanos (a mild pepper) – which introduced us to the mellow delicacy of the cheese dishes at El Sol. These are on the other side of the universe from the gloppy, traditional, Cheddar-covered appetizers they resemble. The taste is softly, lightly rich, like a Port wine cheese.

Then the Ceviche. Raw rocks, apparently. This is our third restaurant in a row with a raw dish, none of it sushi. The ceviche was tilapia marinated in a citrus mixture, which denatures the protein in the fish, “cooking” without heat. Pickling. No, it doesn’t taste like kosher dills. The tilapia was fresh and delicate in bright white chunks among the onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and cilantro, with avocado on the side.

Avocado came to the front with the homemade guacamole. Guac is not difficult to make, but most restaurants who offer it throw in too many irrelevant ingredients. This was a well-seasoned textural delight that got raves from everyone I could hear.

(Speaking of hearing, a note to restaurateurs: Guitar players singing to a room full of people trying to have conversations over dinner do not need a microphone, or a sound system for that matter. We were there the night a guy named Dante was playing and singing and he was fine, except, well, nothing loud is a good accompaniment to food. Please keep hiring Dante. But unplug him.)

When the Camarones al Limon was presented, it took starter honors: big shrimp sautéed in a lemon-lime butter sauce with garlic and diced red and poblano peppers. It had a deep flavor palette that reminded you dinner was coming and it was going to be good.

The thing is we had already eaten a lot of food. I haven’t even mentioned the multiple plates of sopes – a thick homemade tortilla about two inches across topped with refried beans, steak, cilantro, onions and salsa verde. As a group we had done major sampling. So we decided to go with just three entrees for the eight of us. After some back-and-forth with Molly, our server, we picked one chicken dish, one beef and a seafood extravaganza.

Pollo Empanizado on the specials menu was our chicken choice. It’s a breaded chicken piece baked with onion and lemon and served with ranchero sauce, guacamole and sour cream. Jeff was the guy who picked it, and as he was eating he said, “it’s perfect, spicy but just the right amount of spice.”  It was also lighter than expected for breaded chicken, probably filleted and pounded flat then floured sparingly. Nice dish.

While our resident meatatarian was consulting his inner carnivore about the beef dish, Molly piped up.

“I recommend the Bistek Guadalajara,” she said. “It’s steak with cheese melted over top.”

Mr. Meat replied, “Cheese, go figure.” Then he asked, “Is that a signature dish for you guys?” Molly said it was.

Great. This turned out to be a grilled steak topped with sautéed green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, covered with cheese and broiled. It was, the man said, “tender, juicy, light, delicious, almost fruity. Even though it had the cheese topping, there was nothing heavy about it. The steak was so fantastic that everything else with it was kinda blah. It was really stellar.”

Molly saved her best server advice for the final dish. Beside me, Beth was asking her about the possibility of fish tacos, but Molly stood firm for the molcajete.

Like scallops and shrimp? Learn to say this word: Mol-ka-HAY-tay.

Carved from a pockmarked block of lava rock called vesicular basalt, the molcajete is the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle with a bowl shape and three short legs. Since the Aztec and Mayan cultures, it has been used for grinding spices and preparing salsas.

Juan Garcia likes to cook fish in it.

“I heat it to like 600 degrees, then we put the food in,” he said. “We put cheese on the bottom, then we got shrimp, we got scallops, we got tilapia, and we put some cactus in there with roasted peppers.”

It’s a stunning visual on the table. The seafood inside was moist and tender, and we shoved it around from chair to chair, scooping out portions.

“I liked that seafood in the hot rock,” Sara said. “That was my favorite dish. It was kind of tangy, kind of spicy. I liked that. The tilapia was really good.” Tilapia? Really good? Not something you hear every day, but yeah, it was all that and that’s saying something for the cook.

Yes, we had desserts. Best bet? The flan. If you go, get the flan. Maybe it sounds junket-y or rennet-y or like some diet thing, but it’s not. It’s smooth, rich and delicious, and actually what the French call crème caramel. It’s killer.

Paired with Bricco, the Hilton/HACC teaching restaurant down the street, El Sol is now a solid, slightly exotic presence in the area the mayor is trying to establish as SoMa (South of Market). It has been home to notable restaurants in the past, particularly Hunan and Caruso’s. I hope this one stays around.

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