While it's hard to believe that Road Tips turns six years old later this week, it's even tougher to fathom how much has changed with this blog over the course of time. Some of my early entries failed to find a directional voice and lacked a lot of information other than, "Hey, I was here and it was good!" One of the first entries I had was on one of the best Mexican restaurants I've ever been to - El Sol de Tala in Indianapolis. After a recent visit there, I decided to give El Sol their props with a more in depth look at the place.
I don't even remember how I first came across El Sol de Tala but it had to be over a dozen years ago when I found the place in a tough neighborhood on East Washington, east of downtown Indianapolis (see map). Since then, I've visited the original location and a former downtown location a number of times with a number of friends who have never been disappointed in the food they have at El Sol. During a CEDIA Expo about seven years ago, I took two or three colleagues of mine to El Sol and they immediately loved it. The next year, our whole group of about 8 people went to El Sol and they all raved about the place. With the CEDIA Expo back in Indy this year, the first thing my colleague Todd said, "Hey, we need to go back to that Mexican restaurant!"
The name - El Sol de Tala - translates into "The Sun of Tala". Tala, Mexico is a small village over 2000 miles from Indianapolis and the hometown of El Sol owner Javier Amezcua. Amezcua grew up in a very traditional Mexican family of 12, all of whom helped out for meals. Amezcua learned the art of authentic Mexican cooking and brought those skills with him to the U.S. 32 years ago at the age of 26, he opened El Sol de Tala on East Washington as both a Mexican market and cafe. Amezcua immediately had to fight to get recognition because his authentic Mexican food wasn't the Americanized version of Mexican food that people were used to at places like Chi-Chi's or Taco Bell. But he soon won over legions of Mexican food fans with his fajitas, shredded beef tacos, and Mexican seafood dishes - items that Indianapolis natives had never before experienced
After winning over legions of Mexican food lovers in the greater Indianapolis area, he opened up a second location on the north side of Indy in 1995. A few years later in 2003, he closed the north side eatery and opened a downtown location in Union Station in downtown Indy. However, things began to unravel with El Sol soon thereafter.
The downtown location had a tough go for the two years it was open and it eventually shut down in early 2005 when Amezcua filed for bankruptcy protection. The original location shut down for renovations in 2006 and it was supposed to take well less than a year to reopen. However, renovations drug out, and a 2007 lawsuit by Amezcua against a partner put El Sol's future in doubt.
With new partner Ramon Michel, Amezcua reopened the remodeled original East Washington location in March of 2008 after the lawsuit was settled out of court. Amezcua installed his son, Javier, Jr. as the head chef and introduced a number of new entrees to their menu.
While the neighborhood is still dodgy, El Sol provides a well-lit parking lot on the west side of their building. The old stuffed donkey hanging from the wall still welcomes patrons as they enter, but after that much of El Sol de Tala has changed.
The first thing that I noticed was the new Cantina just off to the left of the foyer at El Sol (below left). It features a brick bar and a brick back wall with arched openings with interior shelves for the liquor. The lighting was recessed into the ceiling and it gave the area a nice little relaxing atmosphere. The only problem is that it seemed that no one was working in the Cantina. But that didn't matter as there was no wait for tables on that weeknight.
The dining room (above right) had also changed rather dramatically from my last visit (which had to be the last time we had CEDIA in Indianapolis). First of all the wood beams over the main "courtyard" area of the dining room had been stripped of their paint and left bare to give it an old world look. The lighting was more subdued than before and the chairs and tables had all been upgraded. To me, El Sol de Tala was always about stepping back into old time Mexico each time I went in there. Even with the renovations, it still has that old world feel to the place.
We were seated at a long table near the back of the courtyard area. Our company has grown over the years and some of our Canadian colleagues joined us for dinner that evening. There were 11 of us seated at a table for 14. Three of my colleagues had come early in a taxi and they had already ordered multiple pitchers of margaritas for the table.
Looking through the menu, it struck me that El Sol de Tala features a number of food items that you normally don't find at any style of Mexican restaurant in the Midwest. The menu has such delectable foods such as Panuchos (gorditas stuffed with black beans, marinated pork, pickled red onions and a fiery red habanero sauce), Lomo con Nopales (Mexican spiced boneless pork chops served with cactus and a guajillo chile salsa), and Mixiote (banana leaf wrapped lamb shanks steamed fresh daily in 13 different Mexican spices with guajillo and tequila). I'm especially particular to their pork huaxtla, basically a pork chimichanga topped with chihuahua cheese.
Along with the margaritas, we had the normal chips and salsa, but we also got some of El Sol's tasty Guacamole Ville - their homemade avocado dip made with chunks of tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and lime juice. A bowl of that was $7.95 and we may have gone through six or seven bowls at the table, it's just that good.
I went pretty basic that evening and just ordered up the pork tacos al pastor - I had been wooed on the menu by the shredded beef enchiladas and the shrimp fajita quesadilla. But I wanted something good and simple that evening. A side of chopped tomatoes with onions, guacamole, refried beans and Mexican rice accompanied my tacos. I incorporated a little bit of each with each taco I had. And I have to say like nearly every other meal I've ever had at El Sol, they were pretty damn good.
My colleague, Todd, was seated next to me and he also went the tacos al pastor avenue only ordering chicken on his (above right). He, too, was happy with his meal. "This place has always been great," he said. "The food, the margaritas. When I found out we were coming back to Indy for CEDIA, I knew I wanted to come back here."
My boss, Daniel, was seated next to me and while he's not that much into Mexican food as the rest of us are, he did find something that he really liked - the Poc Chuc. It's a southern Mexican dish with orange and lime marinated pork loin, thinly sliced and topped with a Yucatan pico de gallo sauce called Xni Pec made with red onions, manzano chiles, a bit of habenero pepper and orange juice. Sweet plantains, black beans and guacamole came with it. He said, "It's spicy, but it's good!"
The new guys in the company who had never been there before were also raving about the food at El Sol. One of my Canadian colleagues from Toronto said, "I've been to Mexico a few times and I'm not certain I've had food this good down there on any of my trips."
Count me among the hundreds who are very happy El Sol de Tala reopened. From the first time I've visited there years ago to my most recent visit, I've had nothing but great food at the place. I've eaten at a lot of Mexican restaurants in my life, but I can't think of many - if any - that are better than El Sol de Tala. If you ever get to Indianapolis and are looking for some of the best Mexican food you'll ever have, you have to try El Sol de Tala.
(Update - Sadly, for me, El Sol de Tala was forced to close due to bankruptcy and non-payment of rent to the landlord in the summer of 2014. There's other very good Mexican restaurants in Indianapolis, but I still thought El Sol de Tala was the best - and one of the best Mexican restaurants I've ever eaten at. It was always a treat to eat there.)