Stale chips. Not all of them, but every other one. The stale rubbery bite filled my mouth as I had to tear the chip away from my teeth. The next chip was crunchy and salty and though these totopos are thicker than the chips I normally enjoy, the good ones were decent. I scooped one of these rare gems into the thick white queso that I had been craving. My tastebuds revolted. If you’ve ever attempted to make queso at home, you know you usually add flour to the mix but that’s the thing, it must be mixed. FOLD IN THE CHEESE! What does it mean to fold in the cheese?! Apparently Sol Cantina doesn’t know either. There wasn’t exactly a grittiness to it, but the flavor of unblended ingredients was overpowering. Clumpy and lukewarm it was not hitting the spot I wanted it to hit.
Sol Cantina is not a new spot for me. Long ago when I was in college, I worked the front desk at Union Hill and would come by Sol at least once a week with my co-workers for their famous Cali Wrap. Fries in a burrito smothered in cheese, yeah sure, bring it on. Their back patio, in its heyday, turned into a club on hot summer days where drink specials were well-known and their margaritas strong. I feel as if this place has become a shell of itself, at least since I was a regular back in 2014.
My quesadilla arrived. I chose this because it’s a classic, simple dish that is difficult to ruin if you’re in the quesadilla-making business. And just like chips and salsa, can be a good metric for judging the quality of the other dishes. At first glance, the tortilla was crisp and I could tell was prepared correctly. I go bananas over perfect texture. You know that bite where the flour tortilla is crisped just enough you get that golden crunch sound that leads into a soft, tasty bite. This tortilla had it in spades. But that’s where it ends. The classic cheese quesadilla comes with cheese, sauteed vegetables and onions. As I cringed at the first bite, I had to inspect. The cheese was only half melted and had this oily, rubbery texture like it maybe had been melted but sat too long and started to congeal. Looking at it, it had this weird sheen to it that made me audibly say “just no” and put it down. The sauteed vegetables, I could tell, had potential at one point in time, but my mind conjured up images of the line cook scraping up the last cold bits from a silver container where they had sat in oil for a couple days past their prime. They were charred, but it was old char and really all I could taste was the ash flavor that followed after swallowing. I was starving that day and so I closed my eyes and powered through most of it, but between the sub-par queso and the rubbery quesadilla, I was quickly losing my appetite.
$17 with tip and I left disappointed and annoyed.
I decided to go back another day and try something else. To try and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you don’t know, I love Fish Tacos. Absolutely love them. I love to make them as often as I can and order them wherever I can, wherever I am. Across the globe, fish tacos must pass my taste test. Beer battered? Grilled? Flaky white fish with fresh guacamole, lime-marinated purple cabbage, is Cotija cheese added? What about pickled onion? I love to try all sorts of flavor combinations and replicate them at home. I ordered them and willed the chef in the back to make them perfectly. “Please please let these be delicious.” I begged the taco gods. I ordered a side of queso, just to be fair.
I talked a dear friend of mine into joining me on my quest for truth. I WANT them to succeed to prove me wrong and change my mind and I wanted my friend to witness this or at the very least order something he enjoyed.
Two Margaritas, one rocks, one frozen to start. We love margaritas and for us, this pretty much had to be good. Salted rim, a perfectly instagrammable lime sat on the edge, from the looks of them we had winners. From the taste, it was frozen 1 rocks 0. “Bleck.” I said as I pushed it away. “This tastes like pure mix, so sweet and so sour at the same time?!” He took a sip and his eyes even puckered. Without a word he pushed his towards me. It was far better, different recipe and well-blended. Our server changed it out for me and my tongue no longer tasted of rancid sweet-tarts.
THE FIRST COURSE
An order of chips, salsa and guac came by and this time the chips weren’t stale. The guacamole appeared to be on point but much like the margarita was deceiving. The flavor was so bland I thought I had lost my sense of taste. God, please don’t let COVID strike the night before I get my vaccine.” But no, just flavorless. The salsa had a great consistency yet was SO spicy. I am pathetic when it comes to spice levels but even Nick agreed this should have come with a warning label.
THE MAIN EVENT
The tray of tacos came out looking impressive as had been the theme that evening. A mountain of chips, flour tortillas, tons of toppings and sauce and for me, a small side of queso to give it a fair second round. I ordered Sol’s Famous Beer-Battered Fish Tacos with slaw, avocado, cotija cheese and their chipotle crema. First bite in and I could understand their vision but it was yet another let down. First of all, their menu says “white fish” which is likely tilapia, a terrible fish. Which, is fine because anything beer-battered can be ok, but only if the batter is done well. This was overcooked and had no seasoning at all. The chipotle crema was likely mayo and ketchup that came out of a jug with SYSCO on it. Not to hate on SYSCO but they provide food for prisons and school cafeterias and I’d hope that a basic crema would have flavor and be made in-house. The queso wasn’t gritty but was pretty bland. It was only a small 1oz container so hard to say what the appetizer version might have been like.
Nick ordered the 7-spiced Grilled Fish Tacos and 6 of those spices was table salt. Upon opening the taco, the fish certainly looked like tilapia but there was barely any to inspect. Unlike my tacos, his were a bit barren and while “not gross” but they weren’t delicious. “The best part about this meal is the street corn and the Sangria I just ordered.” he said as we asked for the check. The weird part is that everything looks good but it was all smoke and mirrors.
Sol Cantina is not authentic and it doesn’t have to be. There is a place for “trash Mexican food”, the kind that you know isn’t great for you but is comforting and does the job. This is below that level. This is the bottom-of-the-barrel, better-be-slightly-drunk-or-hungover-to-raise-these-flavors-to-something-you-might-think-you-crave-when-you’re sober-but-only-because-the-food-was-used-to-cure-you-and-nothing-more-yet-you-were-too-drunk-to-know-that-so you-go-on-recommending-the-place-only-to-go-there-without-a-buzz-and-realize-you’ve-been-wrong-for-so-long.
This time around the service was great. Our server was kind and attentive and accommodating and did her best to keep us with full beverages. I want to be sure to mention that I am a huge supporter of dining local and supporting local restaurants during what has been an awful year for them. They have struggled with keeping help, keeping customers and keeping costs down while providing value. I will quote a follower of mine who said “What I forced myself to learn over COVID, is that just because it’ local…I don’t always have to support it. If the food isn’t great and the staff isn’t great, I don’t have to go there.” Kansas City lends itself to a supportive community of people who support local business as much as possible. I’ve seen it and participated in it and do what I can to keep pouring dollars into the restaurants (if you follow me on Instagram, you often see this) so they continue long after our masks come off. But my follower is right, you’ve got to have the receipts to keep the community coming back and unfortunately, Sol Cantina has dropped the ball and deflated it. I’ll give it a few months and return in the summer to see if they’re back in the game.