How often have I lived through this scenario I'm sitting in some taco-teria complete with sombreros and serapes hanging from the walls. Mariachi muzak wails from the CD player; quite frequently it's the Gipsy Kings.I nibble somewhat unenthusiastically at a bowl of over-processed mush claiming to be guacamole, scooped up with stale, store-bought tortilla chips. I hold my nose and down a margarita made from powdered mix. Then the dreaded dish arrives.
Next to watery refried beans and some sort of enchilada-burrito combo, it just sits there, taunting me totally acceptable long-grain rice, red from tomato paste and chockablock with frozen peas, carrots or corn, sometimes string beans.
Why? None of the Mexican cooking authorities I've read, from Diana Kennedy to Bobby Flay, has once mentioned in any of their Mexican rice recipes, "...and don't forget the frozen veggies at the last minute."
You'd think the customers would rebel. After all, the worst Mexican restaurant in town, Diablo, recently closed its doors. It's being gutted, and a sign on the doors reads, "Notice of Duress," suggesting that Toronto foodies do have some standards.
Still, almost all the other Mexican eateries in town including El Palenque, Rancho Relaxo, Plaza Garibaldi, Dos Amigos, Jalapeño, Mickey's Hideaway and Casa Mexicana are guilty of the same frozen-veggie gastro-crime, and nobody's stopping them.
But El Sol is different. Just looking at the rice that comes with the main courses convinces me. It's pale crimson, studded with bay leaves, garlic and a lone slice of actual carrot. I almost face-plant into the mound of deliciously dense, pâté-like pinto beans beside it that have been intensified by slow cooking for seven hours. Sure, it's only rice and beans peasant food, really but it's simply exceptional.
As is the Pollo En Mole, the dish that these two sides accompany, a moist deboned chicken breast riding a pool of dark, bitter-chocolate-infused sauce that's enhanced with an additional 60-some spices.
Equally superb, Chile Relleno (both $14.95), which has to be ordered 24 hours in advance, sees a sweet red bell pepper battered with egg, then stuffed with ground beef, tart green olives, cubed potatoes and raisins. ¡Muy bueno!
Before that, we started with guacamole ($6.95), always a test of a Tex-Mex spot's quality. While not much to look at, El Sol's prepared-when-ordered version surpasses any I've tried elsewhere in Toronto. It's roughly textured and thick with shredded mozzarella and sharp cheddar as well as coriander, garlic and green onions. I automatically assume that the tortilla chips come from a bag, but our helpful server tells us they make them fresh daily.
I'm not impressed by El Sol's margarita ($7.95). Although it's made with freshly squeezed lime juice, the ice cubes blunt the effect. Everyone else loves them, however, so I'll just sulk into my Dos Equis ($4.25).
When we ask for the leftovers to be packaged, chef and co-owner Yolanda Paez emerges from the kitchen to individually wrap each item in waxed paper so that each dish stays separate in the takeout containers. Minor, yes, but just another example of how El Sol does everything with care and consideration.We strike up a conversation with the charming Paez and ask if El Sol is her first restaurant.
"My brother Gonzalo and I used to have a place on O'Connor called Gonzo's," she explains. "But we had to sell it because of my health problems. We had just started to do well. It was so disappointing."
Gonzo's?!? The legendary Mexican spot that I wrote up four years ago? Back then, the same Mexican food experts had tipped me off, claiming it was the best Mexican eatery in the city. Checking it out, I was disappointed to find that the original owners had just sold out, returned to Mexico and left a very average Tex-Mex joint in its place.
"We moved back to Toronto three years ago," smiles Paez. "Now that I'm better, we wanted to start out low-key. Nobody knows we're the original Gonzo people."
-- EL SOL (1448 Danforth, 405-8074) Decked out in folk art, this family-run cantina serving way-south-of-the-border fare is easily the best in town. Warm service, casual digs and made-to-order, authentic northern Mexican grub push El Sol several notches above its competitors. Complete meals for $30 per person, including all taxes, tip and a bottle of beer. Open Tuesday to Sunday 3 to 11 pm. Closed Monday. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNNN