Mexican Eats: El Sol Azteca

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The stretch of Roosevelt Avenue that shoots through Jackson Heights is a thoroughfare of check-cashing depots, cellular phone companies, Latin American restaurants, and bars that, on the weekends, rumble as fiercely as the 7 train overhead.

El Sol Azteca is one of the proper sit-down Mexican restaurants that line the avenue, with full service, beer and wine, and a vast menu. It's a convenient place, just half a block from the train, whether for a quick lunch of chuletas, pork chops grilled with tomatoes, jalapenos, and onions; or to linger over milky cups of coffee and pick at sopes sencillas, simple toasted corn patties spread with salsa, sprinkled with diced onion and crumbles of cheese.

On the menu, there's a tender depiction of the Aztec princess Iztaccihuatl and her lover Popocatepetl, an ancient Romeo and Juliet of sorts, 100 years before Shakespeare ever drew his first breath. The menu spans all kinds of antojitos, flautas, quesadillas, tostadas, cockteles, tacos, burritos, chilaquiles, enchiladas, and larger plates—attempting to cover any possible craving an emigre of Mexico may have, far from home. Practiced hands make them sopa de camarones on the weekends and assemble snacks of quesadillas with fried pork skin and sauteed squash.

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While the attempt is noble, the cooking itself is not always extraordinary. But there are highlights. The pozole, a modest bowl of soup, is actually a multi-plated affair. In the bowl, there's hunks of pork and swollen hominy in a thin broth, rather insipid until you add the roster of salsas, limes, onions, oregano, and ground chile that accompany it. It transforms into a soup that sings to your key. There are two tostadas that flank it, piled high with beans, lettuce, cream, and crumbled cheese. The idea is to crunch and slurp, slurp and crunch.

Enchiladas are also a star, whether you choose red, or green, enchiladas de mole, shrimp, or suizas, swiss-style enchiladas, blanketed with a thick cream sauce and more white cheese. The enchiladas de mole poblano, a sweetish clove-heavy sauce of confounding complexity, covers three tortillas rolled around diced chicken meat and topped with rings of red onion, cheese, and cilantro. It's an attractive plate. Most dishes come with rice and beans, tortillas on the side, and a salad (well, a small handful of iceberg lettuce and anemic tomatoes).

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The restaurant also serves a satisfactory cemita. A sandwich from the Southern state of Puebla, Mexico, the cemita is a monster of a sandwich, here, thoughtfully assembled with layers of meat, cheese, lettuce, onions, avocado, cradled in a sesame seed-studded roll. The defining characteristic of the sandwich is the inclusion of the herb papalo, a bright green leaf with scalloped edges that tastes like acrid spinach. The sharp, acerbic flavor cuts through the layers of fatty stuff, as does a small bowl of chipotle peppers, served on the side.

El Sol Azteca

82-12 Roosevelt Ave. Jackson Heights, NY 11372 (map)
718-639-0808

About the author: Scarlett Lindeman is a cook, food-writer, and recipe editor of Diner Journal, a food/arts quarterly, The Diner Journal. E-mail her at scarlett.lindeman@gmail.com.

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