The two tortillas wrapped around my tinga taco are so thin, they border on supermodel-emaciated, yet they still have enough strength to contain the juicy, brick-red chicken and toppings. A sweet fragrance, an echo of corn harvested who knows when, practically combines with the DNA of the chipotle-marinated meat, as if the chicken were raised on the same grain.
To achieve this kind of taco harmony, El Sol chef and co-owner Alfredo Solis had to find a way to roll his tortillas whisper-thin, so their texture and thickness wouldn’t distract from their essential functions: perfuming the snack and allowing the fillings to shine. Modernist architects once called this concept “form follows function,” the idea being that a building’s purpose would dictate its shape. Clearly, the concept applies to cooking, too. Through a lot of trial and error, Solis realized he could press his tortillas as thin as crepes if he mixed the masa with hot water, not the usual cool or room-temperature water.
“It’s a lot of labor. It takes a lot of time,” explains Solis. Just as problematic, the masa degrades faster than organic produce, requiring new dough batches every two to three hours.
That is not standard operating procedure at many taquerias, even those that make their own tortillas but then treat them like hostages, releasing them randomly throughout the day. Then again, El Sol is not your standard taqueria. Founded in 2014 by Solis, wife Glenda Torres and sister Jessica Solis on 14th Street NW (and expanded to 11th Street NW last year), El Sol combines the technical obsessiveness of a chef-driven restaurant like Oyamel in the District with the intimate, unadorned charms of a family-run taqueria in Riverdale.
I’m tempted to call El Sol the best taqueria in Washington — by a long shot. But such a declaration diminishes the breadth of El Sol’s ambitions. Its kitchen prepares seviches, mussels, tortas, carnitas, pozole, huaraches, quesadillas and a mole rojo darkened, in part, with Negra Modelo beer. Even the plating matches the kitchen’s cooking: Every dish has its own art, a minimalist, white-plate canvas on which sauces are not allowed to spread willy-nilly to the very edges of the dinnerware, as if looking for escape routes.
Yes, Alfredo Solis has chops, which he honed over the years at chef Jeff Tunks’s Passion Food Hospitality group. Solis’s story is a classic immigrant tale: He started as a dishwasher in San Diego before coming into his own as a chef in the District. Solis faithfully managed kitchens at a diverse array of Passion Food restaurants: the late Ceiba (pan-Latin), Acadiana (Cajun-Creole fish house), District Commons (American tavern), Burger Tap & Shake (re-read the name) and Fuego Cocina y Tequileria (where he got to channel his Mexican roots). He was routinely tapped to open Passion Food restaurants, the valuable utility player trusted with a new prospect.
“It was too much. I was working a lot of hours,” Solis says. “It was time to open my own.”
The chef’s decision to go it alone came with a bonus: his younger sister, Jessica, who also toiled in Passion Food kitchens, often by her brother’s side. Jessica Solis prepares the squeeze-bottle salsas at El Sol, including a salsa verde whose serrano-pepper heat must be respected. She’s also responsible for the superb mole rojo, an inky, brooding, four-pepper sauce that clings to the leg and breast meat like a second skin. Its dark chocolate lurks in the background, haunting the dish with equal amounts of sweetness and bitterness.
The Solis siblings grew up in Mexico City, and their childhood tastes still exert an influence. The most obvious example is the pambazo, a chorizo-and-potato-stuffed torta popular on the streets of their home town. The sandwich’s selling point is its brief dip in a guajillo salsa, which lends the soft, griddled roll a kind of freshly sunburned appearance. The dip doesn’t wield much power; the starchy bite reaches its full potential only with a squeeze of salsa verde and a few delicate slivers of habanero and onions soaked in lime juice, a complimentary condiment available to all (heat) seekers here.
The siblings’ time in Passion Food kitchens hasn’t muted their affection for the scorpion pinch of the chili pepper. If a dish requires chilies, the Solises will make sure you feel their presence. Pepper heat hides out in an innocuous mound of creamy guacamole, into which the kitchen folds pureed serranos for a clear, even burn in every bite. Slices of habanero are dropped into the tart, fresh seviche, exploding at random like depth charges. Even the burrito mojado, with your choice of protein, is not immune from the sting; the twin-pepper salsa roja that collects around the base of this flour-tortilla brick smolders but never ignites, thanks to the built-in fire suppression system of meat, rice, black beans and cheese.
The fire-engine-red pozole looks as if it sets blazes, the soupy equivalent of Ray Bradbury’s firemen in “Fahrenheit 451.” But that’s an illusion: Despite the presence of guajillo and arbol peppers, the pozole rojo purrs, its pork richness more dominant than its spice. The presence of cactus paddles, a favorite at the Solis table in Mexico, tends to signal that a dish will go easy on the chili pepper S&M. The crackly gordita shells are stuffed silly with cactus, adding a slippery vegetal note to the pork carnitas, which are prepared traditionally in a copper pot with lard. Cactus also garnishes the slender huarache flatbreads, which feature a variety of meats, including a beer-marinated steak so lush, it rivals tenderloin.
Alfredo Solis tells me that some Latino customers complain about the tenderness of the beef, their palates still siding with the good, chewy meats of home. My complaints are more of the insufferable-Washington-hipster variety: a flan served too cold, its custard rubbery; servers who double as bartenders, their skill at making margaritas still a work in progress.
Mainly, though, I’m frustrated that the Solis crew will soon close their 14th Street NW location, an apparent victim of gentrification. The elder Solis, of course, is not content with the situation. He has plans. Skills such as his — and his sister’s — cannot be contained to one restaurant.
1227 11th St. NW, 202-815-4789
Hours: 8 a.m. to midnight Sunday-Thursday; 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Mount Vernon Square-Seventh St.-Convention Center, with a .3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $2.75 to $15.95 for tacos, appetizers and soups; $5 to $30.95 for tortas, entrees and Mexican specialties.