Spirit of Mexico

Chile Con Soul has soul con chile

Chile Con Soul proudly boasts that it serves "authentic" Mexican food. Not so rare a claim in this town, but when a restaurant is located directly across from the university--a mecca for fast, casual chain places that are anything but "authentic"--that's something.

There's no false claim here. Chile Con Soul offers a full array of Mexican plates all cooked up in traditional ways and delivered with some pretty friendly service. Prices might not quite fit in an average college budget, but more about that later.

We found the place practically empty on a midweek visit but the dining room/bar is so small we didn't feel out of place. The waiter/bartender greeted us warmly and brought us the menus. We ordered a cheese crisp ($4.50) to share, a carne seca burro enchilada style ($7) for John, and the chile relleno dinner ($11.75) for me. Both meals came with beans and rice. John ordered a Tecate and I ordered a Tona, a beer from Nicaragua; both were $3.50.

That evening it was a two-person operation--one guy in front, another in the kitchen. They handled it all smoothly with nary a glitch.

Chips were brought to the table with two salsas, a chunky, mild one and a smoother, slightly hotter one. Both were wonderfully fresh, and I honestly can't say which one I preferred.

The cheese crisp followed. The medium-sized flour tortilla was topped with two different cheeses and was good, but could've benefited from a little more time in the oven--both the tortilla and cheese. Back when I worked in one of this city's more famous restaurants, they had a great trick for getting the tortilla crispy: The cook would lightly dampen a large tortilla, then put it in the oven until the tortilla got lightly toasted. The cheese (not tons of it, mind you) would be added and then the whole thing would be returned to the oven until the cheese was bubbly and slightly brown. This is how I make them at home to this day. I share this with the kitchen staff just as a suggestion.

The entrées arrived shortly after the crisp was cleared away. The burro was enjoyable but there was definitely room for improvement. The shredded beef was a tad dry--I think it had been oven-dried, not air-dried as many places do--and there should've been more enchilada sauce to cover the whole thing.

My chiles rellenos, on the other hand, were practically perfect: light, puffy, perfectly fried batter; tender chiles stuffed with lots and lots of cheese; and slightly spicy tomato sauce across the top. There was also a drizzle of crema on them, a nice and totally different touch. We both enjoyed the beans and rice, but I skipped the salad (I would've preferred just a little lettuce).

Lunch was on a day when the UA was closed, yet there was a small crowd.

The chips arrived late to the table but only because they were being cooked as we spoke, so when they were served they were warm and fresh.

This time John ordered the house specialty, red chile, in three soft tacos (the daily special) with a side of beans ($6.35) and I ordered the camarones ranchero plate ($12.55). One Tecate for John and a soda for me ($1.39) rounded out the meal.

The red chile was indeed special. The flour tortillas were filled with big hunks of tender beef that had long simmered in a thick red sauce. They were so good-sized we packed one up for later on.

The camarones (shrimp) matched any of those found on the beaches of Mexico. Six extra-large shrimp were served in a spicy ranchero sauce rich with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and lots of pepper. The savory beans and rice were the ideal accompaniments to this spicy dish.

I asked if the flan ($3.50) was house-made, and when the answer was a resounding "Yes" I ordered this fave of mine. I wasn't disappointed. The thick yet ever so light custard and the slightly sweet burnt-sugar sauce were the very definition of flan.

Making it in the restaurant biz is tough, especially in a town like Tucson. Chile Con Soul has a lot going for it. They definitely serve up some fine Mexican food (the red chile is a true winner). Plus, this is an ideal location with a ready and hungry set of customers a stone's throw away. Service is casual and fun. They might want to cut back on the menu, lower some of the prices and thereby make it a little more student-friendly. Granted, there are single items nicely priced and happy-hour deals, but to bring in the college crowd on a regular basis, simpler--and cheaper--is better.