The stuffed burro is still in the entry hall to Mexican restaurant El Sol de Tala, all saddled up and ready to go. But that's about all this latest version of a 30-year-old institution has in common with previous incarnations. This El Sol is a delicious upgrade to a longtime favorite.
Entering the dining room at El Sol - an enormous, two-tiered space with a high, vaulted ceiling reinforced with wooden beams and a mass of tables, wildly decorated with bright suns and parrots - continues to be a transporting, slightly over-the-top experience.
The differences begin with the menu. There are fewer main dishes, but those on offer are complex blends of flavors and textures, like the Poc Chuc ($12.95), thinly sliced pork loin marinated in orange and lime juices with a Yucatan-style Pico de gallo, sweet plantains, black beans and guacamole, or the Bistek Ranchero ($10.95), thinly sliced steak sautéed with tomatoes, onions and slices of chiles, jalapeños and spices. There's also more seafood, including Ceviche de Pescado ($8.95) and Ancas de Rana ($13.95), frog legs that come in varying degrees of heat with a Spring Mix salad, beans and rice.
El Sol now features a tequila bar with an impressive selection, as well as 10 brands of Mexican beer. The house margarita ($5) is a generous serving, not too sweet and refreshing.
El Sol brags about its guacamole ($7.95) with reason. It's a particularly chunky blend of avocado, onions, tomatoes and chiles, with a healthy dose of lime - and no cilantro. This is a large serving that, combined with the complimentary chips and spicy salsa, could make a meal in itself.
We followed the guac with orders of the Pollo en Mole ($11.95) and a vegetarian version of the Three Amigos Enchiladas ($10.95).
Some say Mole - in this case, the dark sauce made from bitter chocolate and spices - was invented by the Aztecs. At the old El Sol, it was a somewhat brackish concoction. Not here. This dish features a rich, smoky sauce with a hint of sweetness that is served over a boneless chicken breast that comes in the form of two medallions. This is accompanied by a green salad with a tangy cheese and vinaigrette dressing, a small cone of rice cut with bits of red pepper and peas and slices of plantain. The plantain was green and a bit mushy, but everything else was splendid - and the presentation handsome.
The same was true of the enchiladas, made with fresh spinach, bell pepper, tomatoes and onions and topped with Chihuahua cheese and a drizzle of sour cream, and served with rice and refried beans. The cheese is used judiciously, for flavor and texture, and as for the refried beans, they were a real dish, with none of the starchiness and bulk so common elsewhere.
Our server told us the menu will be getting another update this September, with additional options in store for vegetarians. "People ask for our Tex Mex dishes," she said. "I tell them we don't have Tex Mex. This is real Mexican."