Veer left, then swerve right," said the guy standing outside Pueblo Solis, shouting directions on his cell phone to his friends en route. They'd better hurry, because the place is filling up fast, as it usually does on a weekend night. If only he had the damn GPS coordinates!
The wayward friends may not know where to find Al (short for Alfredo) Solis' five-year-old Mexican restaurant. They probably don't know about the fresh house-made chips and three salsas served when you're seated or about the mole his mother, Oralia Solis, and her cohorts whip up daily from a family recipe. They certainly don't know that this small establishment, which seats maybe 50, tops, was once the home of Slay's -- as in David. But surely they've heard about the margaritas, the ones patrons wax poetic about, even the day after.
Since opening in the St. Louis Hills neighborhood in 1998, Pueblo Solis has attracted crowds for the typical Mexican-restaurant promise of margaritas and casual dining. These days Pueblo confidently touts itself -- on the awning over the front door, on the menu, even on the T-shirts for sale -- as "The Mexican Restaurant." That type of pronouncement brings out the skeptic in all of us. But restaurateuring is a competitive business, and Pueblo Solis is operating in a crowded field. There's Arcelia's in Lafayette Square, and Chuy Arzola's for the casual, overload-your-plate dining experience. Las Palmas and Hacienda are also contenders, as are the various taquerias along Cherokee Street.
Hyperbole aside, Pueblo Solis does have reason to brag, starting with those margaritas, which range from the basic "house" version up to ones made with top-shelf booze, as well as specialty margaritas made with Midori melon or blue Curaçao liqueur (prices range from $4.95 to $6.50). All are served on the rocks, the preferred method, or frozen, for a dollar extra. Add another buck and you can "build your own" with a choice of strawberries or a smoky Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal. What you won't find here is that ubiquitous infernal commercial sour mix. The bartender blends each drink to order, using his lime press to extract every drop of citrus for the sour mix. It's Solis' view that a final squeeze of lime makes for more vibrant food and drink. "There's even a guy in the kitchen with a press, squeezing limes for the dishes," he says.
If margaritas and beer don't do it for you beverage-wise, there's a brief wine list (two chardonnays, a pinot grigio, two cabs, a merlot and a South African blush). Those who consider tequila a digestif have nineteen from which to choose, including a San Matias Rey Sol aged for twelve months in oak barrels (at $24 a shot).
The restaurant's atmosphere is cozy and intimate, though the small bar area has a tendency to get smoky. The lighting is dim -- perhaps a bit too dim for some, when the menu arrives -- accenting tastefully muted terra-cotta-color walls. The strains of Mexican music fill the place and south-of-the-border motifs dot the walls, but Solis avoids overdoing it: No matadors on black velvet here. Though Solis now splits his time between Pueblo Solis and his new barbecue venture (see Side Dish), he remains very much a hands-on owner. He still greets diners with "We'll take care of you" and assists in the kitchen when things heat up.
On being seated, diners are served a gratis basket of hot, freshly made tortilla chips, accompanied by three salsas: a mild green tomatillo, a spicy red-green chile mix and a smoky concoction based on the small yet mighty chile del arbol. If your waiter suggests guacamole as an appetizer, take him up on it, even if you think you've already had your fill of the chips. Pueblo Solis' guacamole is superb -- light and fluffy, with chunks of fresh tomato and a good balance of cilantro, lime, onion and spice. The botana (Spanish for "snack") platter provides a good way to sample a range of starters -- flautas (corn tortillas stuffed with beef, rolled up and fried), sopes (mini cornmeal pizzas), tostadas, a tamale and a quesadilla.
Entrées include the familiar -- burritos, fajitas, chiles rellenos and the like. We tried the house-made tamales. These were plump and delectable, stuffed with spicy pork and steaming in their cornhusk skins (bean or cheese renditions are also available). But we reserved most of our enthusiasm for the more adventurous offerings, and this is where Pueblo Solis truly shines. Grilled salmon with corn salsa sounded wonderful, but we were even more taken by the menu description of the swordfish, which is topped with tomatoes, green olives, capers, cilantro and olive oil. Though the swordfish was unavailable on both our visits, the preparation sounded so tasty that I requested it on the tilapia. Nestled on a bed of white rice, the plump, mild-flavored fillet had been simply seasoned with pepper, oven-roasted to a flaky tenderness and crowned with the chunky salsa. Surrounding the main event was a garden of beautifully roasted caramelized vegetables: asparagus, green beans, zucchini and onions.
If you want shrimp, don't hesitate. They're big fat ones, which come with your choice of a spicy diablo sauce or mole. One dining companion ordered the latter and found the spicy-sweet chocolate hints an apt flavor match to the firm, tasty crustaceans. Solis says his family's recipe for mole calls for more ground squash seeds than most, which makes for a mellower, earthier flavor. Speaking of mole, a lightly sauced filet mignon was delicious, served atop roasted potatoes with snow peas and zucchini rounding out the dish. Still, filet mignon is a bit too mild a cut for mole; the New York strip would probably be a more flavorful match. One other quibble: The snow peas weren't stripped of their annoying strings.
Diners get a house salad with all entrées; ours were overpowered by a vinegar-heavy dressing. Main courses also come with a choice of soups. Chicken-and-rice was about as basic as it gets, light and tasty, garnished with a slice of lemon. Frijoles charros, pinto beans simmered with smoky bits of ham, onion, tomato and a hint of jalapeño, drew more praise. (Solis says he stole the recipe off a menu in Monterrey.) Menudo was faithful to tradition, stocked with tripe, hominy, cilantro, lime and onions, as well as a pork bone for added richness.
As for desserts, it would be a mistake to miss the mango cheesecake, a fruity, cheesy, cinnamony delight garnished with slices of fresh mango and strawberries lightly drenched in a raspberry sauce. Coconut flan was tasty but lacked the silkiness you like to see in the custardy dessert. More satisfying was the honey-drenched sopapilla -- a crisp fried pastry as big as a sombrero, served with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Pueblo Solis is a busy place for singles, couples and families alike -- so much so that there's liable to be a line spilling out the front door on weekend nights. Solis says he has plans for a side patio, but for the time being, you should probably count on cooling your heels in the bar with a margarita, like that guy on the cell phone and his late buddies.