Where: El Sol Mexican Restaurant, 4047 Hixson Pike
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Price range: $3.49 (guacamole salad)-$19.99 (double Especial El Sol fajitas)
Alcohol: Domestic and imported beers, margaritas and daiquiris
First it was home to fast-food burgers, then to some of the best Southern dishes in town. Now, food served at this Hixson Pike restaurant has jumped the Rio Grande and moved well south of the border. El Sol, which opened about a year ago, brings Mexican fare to an area where none has existed for a while: the busy area near Access Road.
I'd heard mixed reviews from friends about this restaurant. Some good, some mediocre. None really bad. I tried to get these out of my mind to give a totally unbiased review, starting with my yardsticks: salsa and guacamole -- two musts in my mind for any lover of Mexican food.
The meal started as expected, with a bowl filled with salsa and a basketful of warm chips brought within seconds of being seated. The salsa was extremely mild. I asked if there was a spicier version, and it was delivered quickly. This one had a nice kick to it. If your tastebuds need some spice, be sure to ask for the salsa verde.
The guacamole was a mild disappointment. The flavor was good, but it was too creamy for my taste. It desperately needed some chunks of avocado. There were none to be found.
Though there were many choices that were a little different from tacos and fajitas, such as cachitos (Mexican shish kebabs) and papa loca (huge baked potato stuffed with chicken or steak, peppers, tomatoes and onions), I chose the typical: a beef burrito supreme served with rice and refried beans. The rice was too dry and bland, and the refried beans needed more flavor as well.
Maybe our arrival time was to blame. Arriving in late afternoon for an early dinner can be a win-or-lose proposition. If there's no food remaining from lunch, you'll get yours made to order. Arrive too early, and you might get lunch's leftovers.
I think our dinner might have been sitting in a warmer for a while. One of the first clues was that it took less than five minutes, actually about half that, for our dinner to be served. The second clue was my burrito. It was watery and wimpy, as if it had been premade, rendering a soggy tortilla that was freshened up with lettuce, sour cream and tomato on top.
The flavor of the beef was good, though. What the meal, as a whole, lacked in flavor, it made up for in presentation. The plates were very colorful, and the food was garnished beautifully.
It's apparent this eatery was once a fast-food joint. It's hard to disguise the drive-through window if you peek into the kitchen. However, the owners did a good job of reconfiguring the eatery into full-service mode, blocking the former open kitchen and turning the drink station into a service area for employees. Tables are in the center of the restaurant with booths lining the walls -- just like they did when it was Back yard Burgers.
Our server was new to this restaurant, he said, so I had to give him some slack when our guacamole did not arrive before the entrees. He did, however, take the charge off our bill without me asking him to do so.
El Sol is halfway there. With the plethora of Mexican restaurants in the Chattanooga area, there needs to be a little more effort put into food preparation to stand out from others.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.