The first thing you notice when you step into Sol Southwest Kitchen & Tequila Bar is the bar itself — long, topped with polished reclaimed wood, dozens of brown-backed stools slanted at a precise and welcoming 45-degree angle. You might be tempted to stop short of the dining room and just enjoy a margarita at the bar, and you would be wise to give in to that temptation.
The tequila bar part of Sol has turned out quite nicely. The list offers more than 50 bottles, including solid selections like Corralejo and Cazadores amid the Patrons and Cabo Wabos. The house "solarita" ($6) is made with Herradura silver, cointreau, and fresh squeezed lime juice — a well-balanced basic margarita. The grapefruit habañero variety ($8) has a pleasantly spicy and grassy flavor from the peppers, which add a stiff but not overwhelming heat.
Sol took the place of the old Charleston Crab House on Hwy. 17 in Mt. Pleasant, just north of the IOP Connector. The old nautical theme has been wiped away in favor of a rustic Southwest vibe. Heavy cardstock menus are clamped with rivets onto wide boards, which have the Sol logo burned into them as if with a branding iron. The dark tan concrete floor is painted to look like sand, and the light tan walls, textured like adobe, are hung with tan cloth-covered frames instead of paintings to dampen sound. It's quite an expanse of beige, but the dark rustic beams and raft-like baffles fashioned from rough planks that hang from the exposed ceiling add some contrast.
The decor may be stark, but the booths are comfortable, and the spare color scheme sets a mood that grows on you after a while. Tiny battery-powered votives ensconced in recessed cubes within the faux-dobe walls add a nice touch.
The deftness and balance found in the drinks and the setting, unfortunately, don't carry all the way through to the Southwest kitchen. The Southwest part comes mostly by adding peppery accents to familiar American fare — jalapeño slaw on a fried chicken sandwich ($9), spicy chipotle buttermilk dressing on a wedge salad ($7), ancho mushroom sauce on a coffee-rubbed sirloin ($19).
Just tossing in a few Mexican-esque flavors doesn't necessarily make for interesting dishes. Two crab cakes ($10) swim in a pool of what's billed as a smoky red pepper sauce, but it's more sweet than smoky, and that sweetness jars against the crab cake. The crunchy chicken skewers ($8) are "tortilla breaded," which sounds promising, but it turns out that crushed tortilla chips aren't much different than any other breading. You're left with fried chicken fingers on a stick, not improved by the unpleasant notes of burnt molasses that dominate the prickly pear barbecue sauce that comes alongside.
A selection of steaks, seafood, and chops are cooked over a wood-fired grill. The 10-ounce sirloin ($16) has a nice salty char,
though the grill doesn't seem to impart enough smokiness to stand out above the tangy notes of a lime and soy marinade.
The carnitas Napoleon ($9) is sort of like a lasagna composed of roasted pork layered between squares of crisp fried tortillas and topped with a green chile sauce and sprinkles of queso fresco. The elements on the Napoleon are fine in and of themselves — the carnitas a bit bland but assisted by the spicy chile sauce. The misguidedness of the design becomes apparent when you try to slice into the stack and the hard layers of tortilla shift and slide beneath your fork and you're left with a jumbled mess on your plate.
Most baffling are the taco platters. On paper, the half-dozen selections look safe but appealing — flank steak, blackened mahi, chicken. One would like to sample them all, but one can't because they only come two per plate, and diners are flatly not allowed to mix and match. (We pressed our server pretty hard on this, but she demurred with an apologetic and practiced air that seemed to say I know, I know — I get this all the time, but my hands are tied.)
I can understand a no-substitutions policy on plates that are highly composed or would throw off the kitchen to adjust, but we're talking tacos here. Highly composed they are not. The tacos arrive on either end of a long rectangular platter with a haphazard pile of bright yellow rice topped by a scoop of black beans in the middle.
The rice and black beans can't offend since they really don't have much flavor. Neither does the inseparable pair of margarita shrimp tacos ($10). The shrimp are marinated in lime and topped with lots of "tequila lime crema" plus shredded iceberg lettuce and diced tomatoes. The margarita idea sounds good, but the tequila is undetectable. While there's a touch of citrusy tang lurking somewhere in there, it's not enough to enliven a series of soft, bland bites. The carnitas tacos ($8) fare just a bit better, the mild pork salvaged by the crunch of shredded cabbage and the tang of pickled red onions.
The most enjoyable things on the menu tend to be the ones that aren't putting on Southwest airs. The tuna "lollipops" ($10) — five chunks rolled in panko, flash fried, and lanced with wooden skewers — are rosy pink in the middle and quite delicious. The dark bits mixed in with the panko look for all the world like chocolate chips, but, thankfully, they turn out to be harmless purple tortilla crumbs. The accompanying bowl of spicy ponzu sauce goes well with the tuna, and the creamy ginger cilantro sauce is an even better match — though it's squirted on the plate in inelegant glops, just one examples of many artlessly plated dishes.
On Sundays, Southwest accents are scattered across standard Charleston brunch fare, like the creamy chipotle sauce on the shrimp and grits ($14) and the grilled jalapeño cornbread base for the fried green tomato BLT ($10). What's really delicious, though, is the banana cream French toast ($8) — thick slices of brioche layered with sliced banana, gooey caramel, and vanilla cream. It's more like an over-the-top dessert than a sensible breakfast item, but it's pretty tasty.
Ultimately, what's disappointing about a place like Sol is that one can see in it a lot of unfulfilled potential. It's a large-format restaurant with plenty of space in a prime location. The dining room is stylish but comfortable, and the service quite pleasant. There's a real wood-fired grill in the kitchen, a solid slate of tequilas at the bar, and more than a dozen good craft beers on tap, too. They take the time to make their salsas and sauces from scratch and squeeze fresh citrus for the margaritas.
But that promising start fails to carry through to the food that winds up on your table. And, in the end, that's really the only thing that matters.