I see what you're doing there in your kitchen — adding green chilies to the cornbread, marinating the fish in tequila, lime and cumin.
The Latinization of Southern food has been around so long it's second nature in the kitchen. It just makes sense to bring the two cuisines together, since they share similarly sunny dispositions.
Taqueria del Sol, which opened in 12South this winter, is just such a matchmaker. You can argue all day about authenticity in Mexican food, and Taqueria del Sol wants none of that. It's role is to marry taqueria and Southern home cooking. Think of it this way: Tacos + sunbelt = a Mexican-ish place with a taste of the South.
The restaurant interior has been stripped down and brightened up since its days as Fish & Co and Mirror. A variety of wooden and metal tables sets the tone for casual and quick. Like a lunchroom, there's a line for ordering and paying. Don't fear the line — over several visits, the waits never topped more than a couple of minutes. It's quicker and is a better fit with the casual approach than waiting for seating and table service.
Use your time in line to take in the menu. It all looks pretty familiar at first: chips and queso, tacos and enchiladas. The details make the difference, separating Taqueria del Sol's food from more generic Mexican eateries.
Your first clue might be the fried chicken or barbecue tacos, and these are a good place to start. In the former, crisp chicken pieces and lime-jalapeño mayo are folded into a flour tortilla with a bit of tomato and lettuce. The latter features decent shredded pork in tequila barbecue sauce plus jalapeño slaw. The dishes toe the line between redneck and Baja.
Speaking of Baja, on every visit, someone in the group ordered fish tacos. Tilapia fingers are coated with masa flour and bread crumbs, then fried crisp, like golden commas. Add tortillas dabbed with a mild poblano tartar sauce and pickled jalapeño slices, and it rings the same bells as a hot fish sandwich, plus that little bit extra.
One dish quickly becoming a favorite is the roast chicken enchilada with lemon cream. Shredded roast chicken is rolled into a tortilla and baked under a satin comforter of lemony cream sauce. It's as close to Southern casserole as it is to Mexican, without being either.
Daily blue plate specials veer from Mexican to Southern. If the carnita tostada is offered, by all means get it. On a crisp tostada, a layer of refried beans supports nuggets of deliciously moist carnitas wafting their characteristic lard-fried fragrance. A topping of lettuce shreds and tomatoes and a drizzle of jalapeño-lime mayo provide crunch and cool contrasts. We also murmured appreciatively over the man-size shrimp-and-grits blue plate and were sorry we never ordered low-country fried chicken breast with ancho mashers, gravy and Sriracha, a tip of the ball cap to Nashville hot chicken.
Daily taco specials vary less — on most of our visits, it was the cheeseburger taco. It's more familiar than special, the sort of comforting ground beef and cheese dip concoction made in skillets across the South every night. Add lettuce, cheese and a tortilla, and you've got perfectly unchallenging kid food.
You can get a purely Mexican-American meal, if you want. There are chips with creamy queso fired with slivers of fresh pepper, or buttery, coarsely mashed guacamole amplified by just salt, lime, tomato and cumin. The winning carnitas have a brawny flavor and firm bite. A hank of mellow beef brisket threads is set alight by ruggedly chopped pico de gallo in the brisket taco. Beef enchiladas get a red beef chili or green pork chili sauce and a layer of cheese blistered into a speckled coating over the plump bundle.
In a few places, the food leans toward Southern restraint when it would benefit from Latin passion. Turnip greens are too mellow, cooked far past the sharpness that makes each bite interesting. Jalapeño coleslaw tastes straight-up KFC — finely ground and sweet without any jalapeño flavor, and almost audibly calling out for the lime and cumin that would make it more distinctive and less an afterthought. More pickled jalapeños and poblano tartar would take the fish taco from pretty good to great.
In other places, the food sounds better on the menu than it is on the plate. The grits for the shrimp and grits were inexplicably sweet. Same goes for the shrimp corn chowder, which is obtrusively sweet. Mexican rice improves little on the typical mundane version when it would be so simple (not to mention intuitive) to add fresh corn, or a roasted mild green chili.
Beef chili (the same one that tops enchiladas) is finely ground and very spicy — but without other textural elements and flavors, like green onion, sour cream or cilantro, it's really just a bowl of hot-dog-topping chili. It could be so much more with so little effort.
Finally, flour tortillas are used straight from the package for tacos. Just a few seconds on a griddle would cook away the raw flour taste. Just like that, you'd have pliable, warm tortillas.
Still, the overall experience is good, and undeniably affordable. The pricing is simple, too: tacos are $2.49, enchiladas are $3.49 and sides are $2.09. Four diners ordering food and drinks totaled just $59.
Taqueria del Sol, one of seven locations in the Southeast, is a handy, walkable addition to folks in the 12South neighborhood who otherwise would have to motor to Nolensville Road or elsewhere for Mexican.
"Neighborhood" is the key word. If you like your Mexican straight up, Taqueria del Sol may not amount to destination dining, especially as parking tightens in 12South.
Unless you decide a little Southern accent is just the thing for your enchiladas.