Whether celebrating Cinco de Mayo or not, El Sol is a draw in Harrisburg

  • By Phantom Diner

I wanted to get to El Sol Mexican Restaurant ahead of Cinco de Mayo, the annual day of celebration of Mexican culture, heritage and, of course, food, because I figured I’d never get in the place on May 5.

So, I went days earlier, on a weeknight and it still was pretty crowded.

Also, I hadn’t been to the quaint and charming eatery on South Third Street in Harrisburg in some time. And I read PennLive’s report that owner Juan Garcia, who opened El Sol 14 years ago, plans to also open a West Shore location in the coming months, and is “weighing” his downtown lease renewal.

Phantom Diner logoI’m hoping that doesn’t mean El Sol moves, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

Downtown dining, due to the pandemic, has been more than rough on all restaurants. And parking at Garcia’s Third Street site can be especially problematic.

But the venue, in terms of feel and atmosphere, décor and service flow, always struck me as pretty close to perfect.

It’s got a lovely bar, colorful wall art, high ceilings, terracotta-tile flooring, wooden tables featuring, during my visit, one red and one white rose in a thin vase, all located in a stately building, which appeals to my urban bias.

So, there I was with my dining partner to enjoy one of the city’s most popular restaurants, where even the simple complementary chips and salsa taste better than expected.

Of course, those chips, and, in my view, all Mexican food, call for the sort of adult beverages that go best with the cuisine. There are a variety of margaritas here, but the regular house margarita, large and just $7, was proclaimed perfection. And I went with full-bodied Dos Equis Ambar, one of several Mexican beers offered along with a few domestic choices. But why go there when you’re here?

One reason El Sol is so popular is variety. The menu is huge. But since Mexican food relies on basically the same elements, namely corn, tomatoes, chili peppers, beans, rice, cheese, beef, chicken, avocados, a big Mexican menu doesn’t imply the freshness risks of, say, a big roadhouse menu.

The wide choice of dinner appetizers, mostly priced in $8 to $13 range, includes: homemade corn tortillas with beans, steak, cilantro and salsa verde; grilled veggies, including nopal (cactus paddle) in a portobella mushroom cap; jumbo shrimp with shrimp ceviche; and a salsa sampler with refried beans and pico de gallo, a chopped tomato, onion and peppers salsa.

As a matter of full disclosure, the everybody-loves-it guacamole is snack dip I’ve never been overly attracted to. But my dining partner wanted it. And it was amazingly fresh and tasty, beautifully presented and almost immediately gone.

There are, as you can imagine, generous and reasonably-priced dinner-size servings of ceviche with shrimp, scallops or tilapia; salads with chicken, steak or shrimp; soft tacos with steak, fish or pork; lots of fajitas and multiple enchiladas with veggies, steak, fish, etc.; table-top grilled steak, chicken or seafood parrilladas; and my personal favorite, Molcajetes Mixto, a volcanic rock bowl with steak, shrimp, mushrooms and cheese melted together, served sizzling, with a side of rice, beans and warm tortillas.

This black bowl literally erupts with flavor and includes a large mild poblano pepper, two big scallions and some fresh orange slice. It simulates, because of its temperature, eating out of a volcano. I ate some of it right from the bowl, and put some into tortillas along with the rice and beans. All of it was delicious.

My dining partner opted for Enchiladas Mexicanas, three corn tortillas filled with shredded chicken, sauteed onions and tomatoes, topped with salsa ranchera and served with salad, beans and rice. It was highly-praised and a huge serving, some of which came home.

I also was talked into dessert: fried ice cream, a dish I’ve tended to regard as just plain silly.

But let me tell you, for $7 and large enough to share, this dish of vanilla ice cream flash-fried with crumbs and served atop some sort of thin, sweet tortilla-like cookie, along with big dollops of whipped cream, all drizzled with chocolate sauce, is an eating experience I now recommend.

I sincerely hope El Sol stays in downtown Harrisburg. And I understand Garcia expanding to the West Shore. Optimally, his success continues at both locations, and his food and level of service is available to greater numbers of Central Pennsylvanians, whether celebrating Cinco de Mayo or not.

 

EL SOL MEXICAN RESTAURANT

18 S. Third St., Harrisburg

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday; dinner Saturday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Reservations recommended through Open Table or by calling 717-901-5050

elsolmexicanrestaurant.com

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