Mexican restaurants are more popular than ever, with around a thousand to choose from for any budget. With the city’s appetite for Mexican food on the rise, we’ve become a convenient target for national chains that provide lackluster renditions of Mexican cuisines. Witness the appearance of Sol Mexican Cocina at 220 Fifth Avenue, near West 26th Street.
This chain has corporate offices and several branches in Southern California along with outposts in Arizona and Colorado; there will soon be one in Boston in addition to the new one in Manhattan, which opened at the start of May. It is owned by the Xperience Restaurant Group, which also operates the Chevys Fresh Mex and El Torito chains, as well a bunch of Mexican one-offs.
Sol claims to serve Baja-style Mexican food. It occupies a corporate-looking corner premises that is all dark woods and windows, with a long bar separated from the dining room by a low wall with a view of four giant TVs that are hard to ignore.
The menu is mainly pricey antojitos — tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and, only at lunch, tortas: plus a heavy emphasis on cocktails and shots of tequila. There are 11 margaritas in two sizes ($17 and $19), including blackberry ginger and cucumber jalapeno, with a “margarita del sol” shaken tableside for $32. When I went with three friends, we skipped the booze.
Our meal began on an up note with a free basket of crisp fried tortillas, with small servings of smoky black beans and a coarse brown salsa that tasted of cilantro and packed a bit of heat, both excellent. Next came a huge bowl of deeply flavorful chicken tortilla soup ($11) that was easily enough for four — though the staff struggled to find small bowls for us to share it, and we ended up using small plastic carryout containers. Break the fried tortillas into the soup for maximum enjoyment.
Things went downhill from here. A watermelon and beet salad ($18) was a barely dressed mountain of baby arugula with little watermelon or beet, while guacamole Granada ($18) eclipsed a very small serving of conventional guac with green apples, pomegranate seeds, cheese, and serrano peppers. So far, nothing really from Baja or the adjacent states of Sonora and Sinaloa.
Dishes we expected to see from that region were completely lacking: There were no aguachiles, for example, and only two ceviches, the first, the hot-and-raw tropical ceviche, with no fish. The second was made with actual fish finely minced, too sweet and priced at $22. Do corporate bigwigs think New Yorkers are afraid of raw fish?
Diving into the tacos, a large section features either two or three per plate ($20 to $23) with a small serving of beans and rice that we became tired of seeing. The breaded and fried fish tacos, Baja style, were good, though the portion of fish hilariously small; more interesting was the grilled fish zarandeado, a method of preparation from the state of Nayarit further down the Mexican coast: almost on-topic for the restaurant. But the flavor of the wood fire that animates the original recipe was missing and the pineapple salsa a distraction as we searched for traces of fish. A tweezers might have helped.
In a section of more unusual tacos chosen from a list of 17, you get only a single taco per serving, so they’re pricey. We went for the gobernador ($14), a taco from Sinaloa that features shrimp and cheese folded into a tortilla. Here it is already available at places like Paloma’s, Cielito, and Taqueria Sinaloense. The version at Sol is made with “wild fish” (whatever that means) instead of shrimp, thinly layered on top of the tortilla and hidden under iceberg lettuce. And who stole the cheese? Someone in Southern California is laughing at how little it costs to make at the $14 price.
Slightly better, or at least more lush, was a taco vampiro fashioned from freshly made blue corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and topped with carne asada. It hails from Sinaloa, though the amount of meat was inadequate and the price absurd ($17). If you’re looking to get filled up at Sol, head for the $22 quesadillas, which are at least large and gloppy, even if it’s bar food. And go to Sol when you want to watch a baseball game, because the place is really an expensive sports bar with generally mediocre Mexican food.