Sunrise on South Congress

El Sol y La Luna: A Bright New Place to Dine

by Tom Philpott

1224 South Congress, 444-7770

Breakfast and Lunch daily, 7am-3pm

Dinner: Wed-Sat 6-10:30pm Mid-priced neighborhood cafes lie at the heart of a city's culinary life. San Fransisco and New York house some of the greatest fine-dining establishments in the world; yet without their magnificent array of ethnic eateries, diners, pizza joints, and sandwich shops, those cities would never have earned their unquestioned status as gardens of epicurean delight. The best of these smallish restaurants provide affordable and well-made food to vast numbers of people, often within walking distance form their homes and offices.

As Austin continues its expansion, we can probably expect a preponderance of celebrated chefs who will delight our palates, thus easing the pain of their rigorous demands on our pocketbooks. But we will be lucky indeed if, as a respite from high-toned downtown dining, more cafes with the good cooking and pleasant ambiance of El Sol y La Luna crop up close to our residences. Located in the old diner space of the Austin Motel, El Sol sits nearly in the center of the tree-lined and hilly neighborhoods just south of the river.

The restaurant's atmosphere is relaxed, comfortable, and yet vibrant: white walls adorned with tasteful Mexican and Central American-style paintings. Wherever one looks - whether to the painted concrete floor or to the table settings - one finds the restaurant's namesake sun and moon images, as portrayed by the artist Anna Salinas. A sea of suns and moons may sound overbearing, but the effect is decidedly fun and stylish.

The menu hits the typical Tex-Mex high points - enchiladas, chalupas, migas, flautas, tacos - but with much more flair and authentic Mexican flavor than the usual grub served to soak up margaritas. The breakfast fare eerily resembles that of Las Manitas, the longtime stalwart just blocks north on Congress Avenue, but at least in imitating that Austin icon, the El Sol people got the execution right. Austinites now have two quaint cafes in which to enjoy lovely migas con hongos (with mushrooms), spicy huevos a la Mexicana (eggs scrambled with chiles and onions), and the ever-popular Central American breakfast (eggs any style with beans and sumptuous fried plantains). And all well under five dollars, for good measure.

On the lunch menu, El Sol begins to break from Las Manitas (with the exception of certain daily lunch specials, like the outstanding enchiladas de mole that both places occasionally serve). A mere five dollars nets you a large plate of enchiladas, napped either in a rich red sauce, combining the heat and mild bitterness of ancho chiles with the slight sweetness of puréed tomato; or, my favorite, a creamy avocado sauce that perfectly captures the delicate flavor of that revered, unlikely fruit. These plates come with an ample serving of impeccably prepared rice and beans.

El Sol also distinguishes itself in the beverage and dessert departments. Every day the restaurant features aguas frescas, delicious thirst quenchers made with freshly squeezed fruit juice. The flavors change with the seasons - recent aqua frescas have featured watermelon and canteloupe, and occasionally the cafe will serve what it calls aqua del sol, a slightly sweet concoction flavored with beet juice. All of these drinks, along with fresh-squeezed lemonade and orange juice, work beautifully with the mildly hot food. As for dessert, I enjoy the cinnamon-laced, warm rice pudding, and love the bright and tangy flavors harnessed in the mango sherbert.

All of the above-cited items can be ordered for dinner in addition to a selection of pasta and fish dishes ($7.50-$8.50) that round out the evening menu. These I found generally less pleasing than the Mexican fare, but still well-prepared. The pasta primavera with chicken is a solid version of the old Italian warhorse: fettucini in a reduced cream sauce with plenty of Parmesan cheese, garnished with sliced red and green bell pepper. The dish was satisfying, buoyed by flavorful chunks of grilled chicken, but it somehow lacked the zest that would inspire future craving. Also, it tasted a bit too much like something a home cook could patch together using ingredients from the refrigerator. The fish sautéed with lemon pepper proved more interesting, although steamed and unseasoned slices of squash and carrot added little to the plate.

Like the famous star from which it takes part of its name, this cafe shines most brightly during the day. The menu may be somewhat derivative, but the neighborhoodly aura, the good food, and the pretty setting make it one of the most peaceful places to spend a morning or an afternoon in Austin. And with a little work on the dinner entrées, El Sol could become a favored evening spot, as well. n

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