The Mexican food scene in D.C. might be much worse today if Alfredo Solis ever made it home in time for dinner when he was growing up in Mexico. At his mother’s house in Atizapán de Zaragoza, a small town in the state of Mexico, anyone who wasn’t at the table when the meal began had to cook for themselves. Felisa Romero wasn’t running a hotel, she’d say. She was trying to make him responsible. Ultimately, she made him a chef.
Two decades after leaving home and beginning his culinary career as a dishwasher at a chain restaurant in San Diego, Solis owns two perpetually packed Mexican restaurants in Washington. His younger sister, Jessica Solis, is a partner and an even more discerning cook. The glossy, multipage menus at El Sol and Mezcalero overflow with examples of how they used to eat in the days when they would scrounge around their mother’s cupboard.
“She always said, ‘Whatever is in the fridge you can use, because I’m not going to cook for you,’” Alfredo Solis says.
The Solis’s pambazos — tortas stuffed with mashed potatoes and chorizo and drenched in a deep red guajillo chile sauce — can be traced back to tardy nights. Molletes — circles of toast smeared with black beans, cheese, chorizo, and pico de gallo — were another improvised home meal. Tacos dorados — rolled tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken, fried until golden, and topped with guacamole and sour cream — are his mom’s favorite.
Alfredo Solis is partial to chilaquiles, a typical hangover dish of fried tortillas simmered in salsa with a side of runny eggs. At El Sol, the salsa verde is heavy on serrano pepper and steeped with fresh epazote leaves.
Other dishes at the restaurants call back to times when the Solis siblings pooled their money to board buses and subway trains into Mexico City in search of their favorite street corner vendors. Mezcalero serves tacos de canasta — or basket tacos — that mimic a Mexico City delicacy in which flavorful fillings perfume tortillas as they steam in plastic and cloth packaging while bicycle vendors pedal them around town. At Mezcalero, three guajillo-dipped tortillas are heated to order and separately packed with beans, chorizo and potatoes, and chicharrones.
“A lot of kids buy toys and candies,” Alfredo Solis says. “We never liked candy, my sister and I. We used the money to go and eat.”
Mexican food aficionados will recognize many of these dishes, but the Solis siblings’ commitment to quality separates El Sol and Mezcalero from most other casual restaurants in the city. For instance, Alfredo Solis is adamant that his restaurants’ tortillas are pressed paper thin. He uses hot water to make his masa more elastic, which gives the rounds a shorter shelf life and requires a gentler touch to make. At El Sol, a tortilla maker refreshes the batch every three to four hours. Now he’s experimenting with milling his own blue corn masa in-house.
“When we first opened,” he says, “I went through like 10 ladies in the first week. Because they were like, ‘How do you want the tortillas like this? It’s impossible.’ And then they’d walk away.”
Solis aims to use products that put him in the same league as posh Mexican restaurants downtown. He says he uses the same choice-grade beef to make his beer-marinated carne asada, but he still charges $3 a taco at El Sol.
Anyone who’s tasted Alfredo Solis’s carnitas knows that taste is more important to him than profit margins. His pork butt undergoes a six-hour braise that shrinks a 10-pound shoulder into a collapsing hunk of three or four pounds. More frugal chefs cut the cooking time short, retaining more protein while leaving it dry and chewy. Solis’s recipe is a mash-up of styles from Mexico City, where beer gets poured into the pot, and the nearby state of Michoacán, where evaporated milk goes in to add moisture and mask the barnyard stench emanating from the copper pot. It’s finished off with achiote paste, turning the meat red for an added aesthetic flourish.
While it’s common practice to bread pounded chicken breasts for chicken Milanesa tortas, Solis demands that his cutlets get dredged to order, but only after an overnight marinade of milk, egg, cumin, and cloves. Newcomers to his kitchen aren’t huge fans of the eggy fingers and extra prep time that result.
“When I hire new cooks, they hate it,” Solis says. “That’s why it’s hard to find good cooks.”
Solis won’t always use all the marinated chicken, but he’s quick to say it doesn’t have to go in a sandwich. He can always run a special for a new taco, torta, or enchilada.
“If you come from where I came,” Solis says, “You don’t waste nothing.”
This refusal to cut corners speaks to the passion that put Solis, 37, in a leadership role in the first place.
In 1999, after running out of money for mechanic training, he decided to follow a friend to San Diego, where he found a job scrubbing plates at Coco’s Bakery, a chain he compares to Denny’s. He always had an eye on the kitchen, and the chef soon put him to work as a prep cook. After a couple years and a second job working at a high-end place near the beach, Solis listened to a cousin who told him there were good jobs in D.C.
Supplied with a seemingly endless well of energy, Solis made a habit of holding down two kitchen jobs at a time. He was working at an Italian restaurant during the day when he got a night job as a line cook at D.C. Coast, launching a career with Passion Food Hospitality that would force him to drill down standards of Cajun, Latin American, Mexican, and American pub food. He’d go on to spend about 15 years with the company, rising to an executive chef role and at one point overseeing three restaurants at once.
At D.C. Coast, Solis says chef-owner Jeff Tunks would rib him because it seemed like he always had a spoon in his mouth. Solis wasn’t trying to stuff his face; he had to know what was in every sauce. When Tunks told Solis he’d earned a promotion to sous chef, the young cook protested, explaining he didn’t speak English well enough to command a kitchen. Tunks told Solis his love of the craft was all that mattered, and he could teach him the rest.
“He had a certain touch with food, a certain passion with the way he seasoned food and the care he put into preparation,” Tunks says. “There was as special spark in him early on, and we recognized that.”
Tunks noticed something else, too: Solis always had a side hustle, whether it was a second job early in their time together or a car he’d bought on Craigslist to fix and flip. When Passion Food closed Fuego Cocina y Tequileria after Solis left the company, he was one of the first in line at the auction sale to reclaim his old equipment.
Around 2007, Solis convinced his sister Jessica to leave the taqueria she started back home and become a line cook with Passion Food. Within a few weeks, everyone was telling him how his unflappable baby sister was the best chef in the family. “She was the best line cook I had,” he says. “She can cook better than me. Definitely.”
Jessica Solis had been cooking for the company for about five years when she started a business out of her apartment. On her days off, she’d take orders for tortas, tacos, and sopes from hungry cooks. She saved money for two years, telling her brother they’d run their own place one day.
In 2014, Alfredo Solis found a 20-seat space on 14th Street NW where he could open his first restaurant (it belonged to his wife’s aunt). But he had no way of establishing credit and didn’t know the first thing about writing a business plan, so getting a loan was out of the question. He had two kids by this point, and didn’t have enough in the bank to make a go of it.
Jessica Solis liquidated her savings account in Mexico, and her big brother maxed out his credit cards. As the last order of business before opening the first iteration of El Sol, Solis convinced his sister to dip into her rent money so he could buy a vertical spit to make tacos al pastor.
Alfredo would spend his days running three different restaurants for Passion Food, then hustle over to the original El Sol at night to help his sister and his wife close the place. Pushing all his chips in on El Sol, Solis left Passion Food and bought a food truck. By 2016, he’d raise enough money to open El Sol in its current location on 11th Street NW, and the carnitas gorditas — fried masa pockets — kept him in business even while it took him six months to secure a liquor license.
This year, El Sol doubled in size when Alfredo and Jessica Solis took over the second floor of their building and commissioned a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the exposed brick wall.
In 2017, the Solis siblings opened Mezcalero, which explores a broader swath of regional Mexican cooking, two doors down from Taqueria Habanero, an essential destination for Puebla-style huaraches from chef Dio Montero. These days, both restaurants swell with crowds hungry for tacos, enchiladas, and chilaquiles.
A funny thing happened when Alfredo Solis became the boss. He always said when he owned his own place, he’d swear off the 15-hour days. But he can’t do it. He hops from restaurant to restaurant, scheduling himself shifts on the line when other cooks need a break. He and Jessica opened their third D.C. restaurant, a Cuban place called Little Havana, with former Passion Food coworker Joseph Osorio last August.
The siblings draw strength from their differences. Alfredo Solis gets bored easily. His head is often in the clouds. He loves trying out new restaurants, new cuisines, new inspiration for his recipes. He’s gregarious and easygoing, learning English on the fly in kitchens.
Jessica Solis is totally focused. When she cooks, she gets tunnel vision. She’s so particular about her recipes that she shows up to El Sol seven days a week to personally oversee that every batch of salsa verde is spiked with the appropriate number of serrano peppers. She cries and fumes when her brother entertains the idea of changing recipes to incorporate other regional specialities at El Sol.
On the rare days when the siblings allow themselves a night off at the same time, Alfredo Solis will stop by his sister’s house to visit. He’ll find her preparing the same dishes for herself that she’d been making all week long at El Sol and Mezcalero: enchiladas, sopes, tortas, and chilaquiles. Her brother will push her to get out of the house, to go eat some sushi with him. She’s just as happy to stay home, where she knows exactly how many peppers went into the salsa.
Jessica Solis doesn’t speak much English, but she doesn’t need a translator to explain: “I love my food.”