Editors' pick

Sol Azteca

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Sol Azteca: A Tex-Mex and South American Favorite

By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, January 25, 2007

I thought there was a certain familiarity about the food at Sol Azteca in Olney the first time I visited. Many of the dishes seemed similar to offerings at Rockville's El Mariachi, a longtime personal favorite. I soon discovered the source of my deja vu: owners Delmi and Dimas Ramirez (aunt and nephew) and Daniel Ayama are all veterans of El Mariachi.

Delmi and Dimas Ramirez were on El Mariachi's wait staff for several years, and Ayama cooked there for more than a decade. And it was there, nearly five years ago, that the three began to plan for their own restaurant.

They opened Sol Azteca almost two years ago in the space formerly occupied by the Blue Ox in Olney Town Center. There is a separate bar, just to the left of the entry, and the main dining room feels more like the cozy neighborhood place it has become than well-known, hard-edged, noisy Tex-Mex places.

Framed mirrors line one wall, and a two-sided fireplace occupies stage center between the bar and the dining room. Tables have cloths, and there is carpet on the floor. Booths line two walls, and a comfortable banquette stretches out on both sides of the fireplace.

At lunch and dinner every day, you are apt to find most, if not all, of the tables filled. It's a favorite spot for small gatherings.

Although the three owners are natives of El Salvador, their menu is mostly a combination of Tex-Mex and South American favorites. Delmi Ramirez said both types of food are about equally as popular.

Any meal begins with a basket of chips and a cup of freshly made salsa, which has a spicy kick. The guacamole is simple and satisfying; the sweet taste of avocado shines through. An order comes with more chips and is presented in an edible flour tortilla basket. The quesadillas filled with beef or chicken and cheese had both a pleasant taste and a pleasing texture.

Ceviche is my appetizer of choice. The ceviche here isn't trendy; it's simple strips of white fish marinated in citrus juices and served on lettuce with bits of red onion and a wedge of lemon. For me, a double order is a full meal.

But then you would miss the enchiladas -- stuffed with chunks of beef, for example -- or the tacos al carbon, also filled with chunks of beef, or the chile relleno, which, too, is filled with chunks of beef. And all of this beef is meltingly tender -- never gristly -- and flavorful. The same can be said for the beef fajitas, tender strips of beef with just the right tinge of vinegar taste. Fajitas are served with pico de gallo, guacamole, Mexican rice, beans and sour cream, alongside warm flour tortillas.

Most of the Tex-Mex specials -- including enchiladas, tacos, tamales and chimichangas -- can be ordered with beef, chicken or cheese, and in some instances, shrimp or seafood. Mexican rice and beans come with most of the Tex-Mex dishes. The Latin American specialties (listed on the menu as "Oven and Sautéed Dishes") are accompanied by white rice and black beans.

A Cuban favorite -- masitas de puerco -- is one of Sol Azteca's most flavorful offerings. Chunks of pork are marinated in a creole sauce and then slow roasted with bitter Seville oranges. The pork turns out fall-apart tender, infused with sweet tart flavors.

The menu includes the Peruvian specialties lomo saltado (strips of fajita steak with tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeño pepper, green peppers and french fries) and pollo saltado (made with strips of chicken). Sliced beef tongue Portuguese-style and a Spanish seafood stew (zarzuela de mariscos) are also on the menu, along with duck roasted in a Madeira wine sauce and grilled salmon with shrimp and scallops.

The service is friendly though sometimes hectic, and there is a full bar with a wide selection of beer and mixed drinks.