Way out on Harry Hines Boulevard, just past the bazaar bearing the same name, Continental Liquor makes its business not only selling booze and sodas, but as a landlord too. In 1998 Maria and Roberto Velasquez rented 800 square feet from the owner and set up a small kitchen and steam table in the back corner of the store to open their first El Paisa Cocina.
The restaurant wasn't much to look at, but it offered much more than their last operation. The couple had spent the past few months operating a small taquería cart out in the elements next to the neighboring bazaar. When food safety restrictions tightened and forced them to seek a full, certified kitchen, they took the path of least distance and opened up their first permanent location right next door.
That original El Paisa is still thriving today. In the line that formed in front of me on a recent visit, a short guy with paint on his pants and salt-and-pepper hair pulled a crisp $100 bill from his pocket and ordered the last few spoonfuls of costillas de puerco. When my turn came, I pointed at the empty tray, but I didn't have to ask. The face of the woman who was working the counter said it all: no more forest-green pork stew today.
I didn't mind. Not too much. There was still some asado de puerco, which I ordered with bland rice and runny refried beans. The stew was rich, red with guajillo chiles and cost only $5. That plate was a deal, but buying the mini tacos felt like stealing. Each double-ply tortilla stuffed with your choice of pastor, barbacoa or chicken costs only 75 cents. Skip the chicken and go for the pastor, which makes use of sweet, sautéed onions, or try the rich, juicy barbacoa that screams for an aggressive squeeze of lime juice.
Over the past 13 years the Velasquezes opened nine other El Paisa Cocinas in Dallas, Fort Worth and the suburbs in between. Each has a unique footprint, its own layout and even its own menu, depending on the cooks assigned to the location. Together, these small restaurants built a loyal following while slowly catering to a new customer base the family had no idea would eventually provide more than 80 percent of their total income.
If you walk into any El Paisa, the customers are predominantly Latino. But what started with a small number of catering contracts with some curious North Dallasites grew into a sizable operation that serves large companies including First Global and Merrill Lynch. The catering business was so strong they decided to lease space for a new, larger concept with an oversized kitchen, just off of Northwest Highway at Hillcrest Road. Soleo, "the soul of Mexico," opened this fall, and turned Preston Hollow gringos on to an upscale variant of El Paisa's cooking.
Some dishes at Soleo straddle authenticity and approachability perfectly. Guajillo chiles stain a thin but flavorful pork broth rusty red for a pozole with an earthy flavor that's sturdy enough to stand up to a heavy squeeze of lime juice. There are plenty of tender hunks of pork and huge kernels of hominy, but if you're used to the soft, mushy white orbs that vaguely resemble starch found in most bowls, you might be surprised by this pozole. The kitchen uses dried kernels cooked in an alkaline bath until they're big and swollen before adding them to the broth. The results have character and bite.
So does the ceviche, made with sugar cube-sized chunks of mahi mahi that ate like tender steak, swimming simply in lime juice with fresh squash, tomatoes and onions. Cast aside the ketchup spiked with hot sauce that's brought with the dish and ask for Tapatío if you're looking for savory heat instead.
You could try the Soleo sampler, or you could let me do it for you. The beef gringas are quesadillas that will appeal to any meat and cheese enthusiast and are by far the most worthwhile bites on the plate. Order them on their own instead and get your choice of nine delicious fillings from pastor to black beans to quinoa.
None of this beats the chips and salsa. While you wait for your appetizers, gorge yourself on thick, crisp tortilla chips served with warm tomato salsa with serious but not punishing kick, and black beans that are under-salted but smell rich with cumin. There's good, chunky guacamole here and runny queso with an unexpected tang for chip dipping. In fact, maybe skip appetizers altogether and opt for a second basket of chips.
Some other menu items at Soleo needed more work. The beef fajita meat was cooked till it was dry, which was a shame since the beef was seared with a delicious, well-seasoned crust. And the tacos al carbon ruined a perfectly cooked slices of rib-eye steak with a dry tortilla covered in clunky, melted cheese.
Tortillas across the board weren't as good as the mass-produced ones served at El Paisa — with the exception of the tortillas used in the enchiladas. The chicken version swam in green tomatillo sauce that was tangy, and the tortillas were thick, tender and fresh. Unlike many Tex-Mex restaurants, Soleo uses a finishing touch of cheese and sour cream with an appreciated restraint.
A vegetarian enchilada stuffed with black beans, tofu, roasted corn and squash is almost as good, and if you really want to eradicate every last bit of animal flavor from your meal they'll even make the enchiladas vegan, a description that's likely not used much back at El Paisa. Of course the vegans are going to miss out on borracho beans spiked with Mexican ham and thick pieces of bacon served with many other dishes.
If you drop in on Soleo and order a bowl of pozole and a plate of enchiladas and do a few shots of blanco from the modest but well-rounded tequila menu, I'm willing to bet you'll have a decent time. The dining room is large and open, and while it doesn't feel romantic or cozy, it's a fine place for dining. The staff is warm and mostly attentive, and the food is made from scratch more often than not.
And if you do have a good time, you should drive over to Harry Hines Boulevard, past the Windmill Lounge and past Love Field. Drive just beyond the bazaar and park in front of the Continental Liquor Store with the El Paisa sign painted on its bricks. Order yourself five or so mini barbacoa tacos and cover them with chopped onions, cilantro and one of the three salsas sitting on the counter next to the taquería's register. Take a seat at one of the bar stools and sip from a bottle of soda you have to buy from the liquor store counter. This is where Soleo started rising.