Restaurant News & Reviews

Beyond Tex-Mex -- way beyond

I've got a weakness for chiles poblanos. It could be worse, I suppose. I could have an inordinate fondness for cheap tequila. Unfortunately, the poblanos have the same effect on me that 99-cent margarita specials have on some people. They lure me into mediocre Tex-Mex restaurants where, before I know it, I've moved on to the hard stuff: combination plates laden with hard tacos, leaden enchiladas and mortar-like refried beans.

Lately, the growing number of taquerias in the area has made it easier to resist the siren call of the poblano. But when I got an e-mail from a reader singing the praises of the chiles poblanos at Sol Azteca, all resistance was broken. In no time, I was ensconced among the faux adobe brick walls of the dining room, scouring the menu for my quarry. It was easy to spot, set off by itself in a frame denoting it as a house specialty.

The dish lived up to its billing with two large poblano peppers encased in clouds of egg white batter and filled with molten white cheese which, when I cut into them, oozed out into a pool of red sauce, creating a swirl of creamy, complex spicy flavors.

Turns out chiles poblanos aren't the only reason to pay a visit to Sol Azteca. Though at first glance the menu looks like your typical Tex-Mex offering, heavy on combination plates and fajitas, a closer look turns up several pleasant surprises. Sprinkled among the nachos and chip dips under the appetizer heading, you'll find pepino (cucumbers sprinkled with salt, lemon and chile) and a hearty homemade Mexican chicken soup with avocado and pico de gallo.

Under the heading of Platillos Mexicanos, you'll find a number of authentic Mexican specialties. Moharra dorada, a whole deep-fried tilapia, is presented simply with tortillas and a small avocado salad, all the adornment the crisp-skinned fish needs.

An order of coctel Campechano produces a large footed goblet filled with shrimp, octopus and raw oysters -- all impeccably fresh -- in a Mexican "cocktail sauce" spangled with onion and cilantro. It's more like a chilled tomato-based soup, really, and is meant to be consumed in its entirety. That shouldn't be a problem, once you've adjusted the flavor to your liking with hot sauce and a few squeezes of lime.

Arroz con pollo (listed on the menu as A.C.P.), a Mexican chicken and rice dish topped with melted cheese, and its shrimp variation, arroz con camarones (A.C.C.), are among the restaurant's most popular offerings. I'm partial to camarones Azteca, a simpler dish that serves up a bounty of plump butterflied shrimp, sautéed with a dusting of chile powder.

The restaurant offers a more than respectable take on taqueria-style soft tacos, available with a choice of half a dozen meat filling options ranging from pollo asada to lengua. Tacos al pastor, featuring pork marinated in pineapple, onion and spices, are especially rewarding.

Carne asada, a favorite dish on both sides of the border, is ably represented here by thinly sliced rib-eye, grilled to a toothsome turn. Slices of fresh avocado are a pleasant addition to the usual accompaniments of rice, beans, lettuce, tomato, onions and flour tortillas. As I was to learn, the avocado garnish is common to many entree presentations at Sol Azteca. It's one of the details that, along with scratch-made sauces and a varied offering, set the restaurant apart from the Tex-Mex crowd.

Those details also mean that the food doesn't always come out of the kitchen as fast as at some Tex-Mex eateries, though I never encountered any undue waits. If you're in a hurry, I suppose you could order one of the 37 combination plates (including seven vegetarian combos). In my experience, those dishes get to your table at microwave speed at most Tex-Mex eateries. I couldn't say whether that's the case at Sol Azteca, though, not having ordered any combination plates. Chiles poblanos are as far down that road as I'm willing to go.