Sweet salsa and grand opera at El Sol Azteca1/4/2017
The year 2016 was disruptive to the status quo. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, the Chicago Cubs won its first World Series in 108 years, and Donald Trump became president of the United States. It took some time to get used to it all. Yet one friend says that the hardest change to accept is the bright red, blue and yellow building formerly known as Gino’s.
Gino’s was part of the city’s restaurant history. According to local lore, it was a wedding present given to Gino Foggio by Johnny Compiano when Fenu married Compiano’s sister. The Calabrese-style restaurant was famous for its pan fried chicken and homemade desserts, among other things. Its closing was a disappointment to hundreds. Its transformation into El Sol Azteca is not a salve for all of them.
The first things that met my eye were the paint job and a plastic banner in lieu of the iconic Gino’s sign. That served as prologue to the interior. Furniture is Mexican folk craft on steroids. Leather and wooden tables are emblazoned with the El Sol Azteca logo and brandished with the red and sky blue theme. Table tops were painted with scenes from Mexican mythology in comic book style. One table for two featured the largest chairs I have seen in any restaurant. Gino’s old fireplace now features a bronze tree decorated by laser lighting that constantly changes color. The back of the fireplace is covered with what appears to be a Turkish flag. Music ranged from pop ballads to grand opera. The bar featured shelves of humongous cocktail glasses plus a giant frozen margarita machine.
This is clearly some kind of departure from the La Hacienda/El Rodeo/El Aquila Real template that defines most sit-down Mexican restaurants in Des Moines. The menu looks much like those other places, with so many pages it requires binding and an emphasis on fajitas, burritos, nachos and margaritas. However, there are some striking differences. I could only find one pork dish. I also found a lamb dish, which was strangely only available for lunch. Tacos were barely represented and expensive at $3.74 for one. Jarritos (a cane sugar Mexican soft drink line) was not available.
Prices, in general, seemed higher than what one expects at most similar sit-down Mexican cafés. However, on a return visit a couple weeks after my first, I noticed a number of items had new prices that were $2 to $3 less than before. The best things I had at El Sol Azteca were grilled steaks (in various treatments) and the house soup, which was a riff on chicken tortilla soup with mozzarella. The worst things were the beans and rice. Beans had a texture so dense I needed a napkin to get them off my fork. Rice was so hard I thought it might have been a bottom-of-the-pan mistake. Return visits delivered the same texture. One friend said he worried he might chip a tooth chewing it.
Salsas were strange, too. The “spicy” version would be considered mild at other Mexican restaurants. The “mild” was no spicier than some tomato juices, and a “sweet’ salsa tasted like ranch dressing. Carnitas (the lone pork dish) was disappointingly tough to chew with hard crust. Chicken dishes featured breast meat only. Flan had a delightfully creamy texture. Guacamole was a pleasant surprise inclusion on a couple dishes.
El Sol Azteca
2809 Sixth Avenue, 282-6767
Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Enosh Kelley closed his French Bistro Montage after New Year’s Eve. He explained that someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He will maintain the rights to the Bistro Montage name and template but is not sure what he will do next. Nor did he know at press time what would happen next in the Bistro Montage venue… Maytag began producing its famous blue cheese, 10 months after closing down. ♦