If you remember a while back, we attempted to categorize many of the Mexican-inspired restaurants that dot the Middle Tennessee map by tagging each eatery with a defining feature. Our mnemonic nomenclature yielded The One with the Beans and Slaw, The One with the Giant Arched Patio, and The One with the Bright Orange Façade, among other monikers designed to distinguish between establishments with similar menus.
Well, add another name to the list: The One with the Sopapillas. It won't be hard to remember which restaurant that is, because founders Steve and Sharon Dale named the sleek new Franklin store after the complimentary golden-brown pillows of sweet fried dough delivered to the table at the end of the meal.
It's helpful to know to expect this surprising deep-fried largesse, for a couple of reasons. First of all, the free dessert is so filling and delicious that you'll want to save room for it. Second, the squeeze bottle of honey in the center of every table ... that's for drizzling into your sopapilla, a common culinary habit in Steve's native New Mexico. If you thought maybe it was there for the purpose of, oh, I don't know, sweetening your iced tea, you would quickly discover that when honey is submerged into cold liquid, it turns from a sultry nectar into something more akin to hard candy. You would learn subsequently that if you use a knife to stir this golden strand into your drink, you end up with an amber-hued ice pop resembling spun glass. Oddly enough, the whole experiment will be so amusing that you might repeat the process on your next visit just see it all happen again — at which point you might consider nicknaming this restaurant The One with the Chihuly-cicle.
While the sopapilla-honey finale is the standout detail at this sparely decorated eatery in the spanking-new mixed-use development at the corner of Moores Lane and Franklin Road, there is plenty to recommend the sturdy repertoire of fresh fare. In a mad, mad world where the beloved institution of free chips and salsa faces extinction, Sopapilla's delivers a generous complimentary basket of warm chips and a bowl of picante salsa flecked with charred pepper. Steve, a musician with country act Little Big Town, perfected the recipe over five years of traveling on the road with the band. In fact, he says it was the experience of cooking for fellow performers that gave him the confidence to open a restaurant. (Between the free chips and the free sopapillas, it's hard to suss out the revenue plan here. Then again, Olive Garden — with all its gratuitous breadsticks and salad — managed to survive even the stress test of my hungry and penniless college years.)
Flanked by these complimentary carbohydrates is a familiar south-of-the-border cast of characters — including quesadillas, chimichangas and tacos — that sticks close to the typical script of tortillas, shredded beef and chicken, guacamole, sour cream, and cheese. Sopapilla's scored high on the guac-o-meter, with a fluffy, chunky mash-up of avocados tinged with lime, which far outshone the dull stewed beans and pale chile con queso in the dip sampler. We would have preferred the straight-up guacamole appetizer. That said, $9 bucks seemed steep for guacamole delivered without the flourish of tableside preparation.
By contrast, the appetizer of rolled tacos with beef and chicken delivered a surprising amount of food for the money. Six piping-hot crisp-fried cigars plated with guacamole and sour cream made an economical shared opener — or a large meal — for $7.29.
Among the entrées, the lopsided pairing of green corn tamale and chipotle shrimp taco delivered both the high and low of our experience. On the upside, the fluffy bundle of sweet corn masa, studded with green chiles and slathered with creamy jalapeño Baja sauce and molten cheddar, was a decadent layering of comforting textures and a filling meal on its own. On the downside, its sidekick — an unmanageable open-face corn taco — held a sparse medley of minced bacon and tiny shrimp (veins still in), all of which was concealed beneath a pale nest of julienned cabbage as mouthwatering as shredded newspaper.
Mexico City street tacos plated three small open-face corn tortillas with choice of chicken or beef. Piled with cilantro, onion and guacamole, the tacos were fresh and bountiful, but uniformly mushy. Grilling the tortilla to light crisp could add a welcome textural contrast.
While not exactly the most innovative dish, the slow-roasted chicken quesadilla scored high marks in its ubiquitous category. Loaded with chicken, cheese, black bean-and-corn relish and caramelized onions, the plump grill-bronzed triangles arrived with a ramekin of creamy jalapeño Baja sauce, which added a cool counterpoint.
On the lighter side of things, the chipotle honey shrimp salad was a welcome departure from the prevailing carbs and cheese. When we mentioned that we would share the salad, along with several appetizers, our server thoughtfully divided the meal into two plates without our asking. Crisp greens tossed with small warm shrimp (veins still in), crunchy jicama, mangoes, bacon, roasted walnuts and goat cheese made an ample lunch for two.
While we discovered little on the menu — apart from the eponymous desert — to distinguish Sopapilla's from its Southwestern-flavored genre, we did catch ourselves rhapsodizing over the so-called Sopapilla margarita. The frozen, balanced cocktail of tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice, with the clean sweetness of agave nectar, was a defining taste of the restaurant — so much so that we might expand the alias to The One with the Sopapillas and Really Good Margaritas.
Sopapilla's serves lunch and dinner daily.