1930 9th St NW
Washington, DC 20001
- Food: Perfectly acceptable, while completely undistinguished.
- Value: ~$22/diner, including tax and tip, with appetizer and sangria. We’re not talking pupuseria value here folks, but we aren’t talking Oyamel either.
- Service: Exceedingly friendly, but somewhat overwhelmed by a crowd of about ten diners. I shudder to think what its like when the place is full.
DC might be known for a lot of things, but Mexican isn’t one of them. This is why former Skirtchaser-in-Chief William Jefferson Clinton got his taco on at Lauriol Plaza (unless you think is was the copius numbers of drunken, starcrossed female interns that hang out there…for shame). Especially in the heart of Little Ethiopia – that area of U St. east of Ben’s Chili Bowl where restaurants like Dukem, Axum and Etete ply their communal dining and funny feeling bread products. Obviously, the area is changing – sports bar Nellie’s now dominates the corner of 9th and U Sts. – so why not branch out ethnically as well? A sidenote: how many neighborhood reboots can DC possibly support? First U St. was “Black Broadway,” then ground zero for urban blight, then “Little Ethiopia” and now the forefront for yuppie expansion in Northwest – and this is all in fifty years, and is happening all over town.
El Sol is a little restaurant on 9th St. next to Etete (hopefully a future visit for this blog’s humble proprietor). It happened to be a compromise pick for the t/e and two friends on our way to the Ting Tings show at the 9:30 club. Sangria happened to be on our minds, and as sweetened alcohol products go, sangria is a distant second to honey wine at 9th and U St. So El Sol it was.
When you step in to El Sol, you are confronted by decor I would deem Mexicana-once-removed: bright yellow walls, sombrero-esque wall decorations, margarita glasses with little cactus stems. We’re not talking little Guadalajara here, but I’m not an interior designer. Those glasses, by the way, which I swear I’ve seen at the Columbia Heights Marshalls, provoked a long conversation about the dollar store gourmet article from the New York Times, one of the first inspirations for what you are reading now (and likely a source of much future content for this little website).
So, the food. Presumably that’s why I write these reviews. Since it was sangria we came for, that’s where I’ll start. It was sweet – too sweet for my liking – but refreshing, and unlike some sangria I’ve had, the fruit had been steeped in the wine before being served. That fruit, however, received somewhat uncharitable reviews from my co-diners. I believe the term being thrown around was “over-macerated,” clearly a description that belongs in a restaurant review. But the pitcher was big, and not wallet-stretchingly unaffordable (though more expensive than Lauriol Plaza, which is never good).
Our meal included nothing particularly adventurous: chips and guac, spinach and cheese enchiladas, taco and beef fajita salads. To be quite honest, our tame ordering was repaid in kind. The guacamole was tasty, but presented in a cup which was actually half full of chopped lettuce; with over half the chips still remaining we exhausted it, leaving only the watery, flavorless salsa. Bad salsa is really a sign that you have a problem – its like going to a club with disqusting toilets – you know you’re in for disappointment. Really, if a Mexican restaurant can’t make good salsa, then what’s the point?
My enchiladas were, to continue the trope of this review, completely acceptable without a single stand-out quality. At least they came in fresh corn tortillas and the spinach was well seasoned, offsetting the salty blandness of the pinto beans and queso fresco. Once again, I noted a criminal lack of spice, but I’ve always prefferred my peppers at sinus-clearing intensity, so maybe I’m biased.
I didn’t taste the salads my friends ordered, but I can tell you this: they are BIG. Plenty of greenery to be had, if that happens to be your thing. After an hour of eating and talking, I would say that hardly a dent got put in either plate. But once again, the overall feeling was one of indifference – really, if you can’t tell how I feel about this place 700 words in, then maybe I’m not the paragon of clarity I always assumed.
Clearly, others don’t share my feelings on El Sol, though I trust Yelp.com about as far as I can throw the abstract concept of crowd-sourcing restaurant reviews (not as far as you would think).
The bottom line: if you’re going to Little Ethiopia, you don’t look for Mexican food – and considering the quality, you shouldn’t. But, if you live in the neighborhood and you crave mediocre tacos, enchiladas and other standard Mexican fare, who am I to stop you? At least its better than the creeping corporatism of Alero and Lauriol Plaza. I would point you towards Chix first, however; I hear they’re doing magical things with birds. That, however, is the subject for another review.