Fun in the sun

Tasty Mexican fare and lively bar shine at Quinto Sol

Your Doña Skinny margarita ($12) arrives quickly. Lick the salt and take a cold sip. Chase it with tortilla chips dunked in three low-burning salsas. You've just waited 30 minutes for a table because Quinto Sol doesn't take reservations on Friday nights, but the margarita makes up for it. This one is made with Frida Kahlo Silver, a super premium tequila that, like all the tequila here, comes exclusively from the blue agave plant.

It's hard not to have fun at Quinto Sol in downtown Redwood City. Just look around -- there's a petrified tree strung in gold lights standing in the middle of the dining room, spiky stars dangle from the 150-year-old ceiling and green foliage drapes a tree slab that's missing a chunk from its middle.

This is the Sol family's third restaurant. They also own Vive Sol in Mountain View and Palo Alto Sol on California Avenue. The menu emphasizes foods from the family's native Puebla, Mexico, but also includes Mexican-American standards like nachos and burritos, along with a serious affection for Monterey Jack cheese.

The jack cheese snows on tostadas, tacos and sopa azteca (tortilla soup). It also shows up in odd places, like the camarones al cilantro ($20). Here, a semicircle of gulf shrimp with their tails curved up look like a team of synchronized swimmers. Sauteed in plenty of garlic and cilantro, the shrimp are great on their own but better with a squeeze of fresh lime (you'll have to ask for a wedge).

But then things get cheesy. Melted jack caps a speed bump of orange rice as well as the refried black beans. There's a shredded, half-melted jumble of jack swathed in red enchilada sauce hiding in your Romaine lettuce. It peeks from beneath a pale, sesame-seeded slice of tomato as if to say, "Yeah, I know, I don't belong here."

If jack cheese is a fetish at Quinto Sol, sour cream is an obsession. The version here is thick and robust. It's irresistible squeezed on a tostada but can sometimes overwhelm a sauce, as in the case of the pollo guajillo ($18). Chicken drowns in what looks like tikka masala and tastes like tomato sauce saddled with cream. A few chopped almonds lend crunch, but there aren't enough to break up the creaminess. You'll need plenty of tortillas (and a buddy) to get through it all.

Some of the cream sauces do better spooned over enchiladas or doled out in small doses, like on the roasted chile rellenos caseros ($13). Two poblano peppers lounge in a broth colored chartreuse by epazote, a green herb popular in Mexican cooking. The peppers ooze melted jack cheese, which mingles with corn, slivers of potato and specks of zucchini that are too minuscule to matter. An unadvertised ladleful of nueva salsa, a sour cream-thickened chipotle sauce, drips down the peppers, instantly thickening the broth. It works beautifully here, balancing the gentle heat of the poblanos and tang of the epazote.

In the rajas poblanas ($18), a sour cream sauce binds strips of pasilla peppers, onions and shredded chicken. It's reminiscent of the King's Ranch Casserole I ate at summer camp, but in the best way possible. The vegetables still snap, and the heat of the chiles lingers.

While the rajas poblanas unintentionally evoke nostalgia, the fideos secos ($11) come straight from the Sol sisters' childhood. Scraggly, angel hair-like noodles are boiled and then sauteed in chile sauce until they absorb the liquid. The pasta arrives molded like a brown woven basket brimming with avocado chunks, queso añejo (white aged cheese), cilantro and some sour cream. A couple of puffy, fried tortilla chips double as scoops. The garnishes are terrific, but the pasta conjures memories of Chef Boyardee. Nonetheless, it was a table favorite.

If that's too much lactose to contemplate, try the tacos. During weekday lunch you can order them two to a plate (or mix and match with a tostada, enchilada or quesadilla), plus rice and beans ($14.50). Below the gringo fixings of shredded jack, lettuce, and chopped tomatoes are generous shards of tender pork or hunks of ribeye brushed in adobo sauce. The meat is so good you could eat it by itself.

Don't miss the trio de albondigas ($11). Like the other appetizers here, it can double as an entree. Six juicy onion-flecked meatballs (two each of pork, chicken and beef) are served with three sauces: green tomatillo, scarlet chipotle and "nueva." These sauces repeat throughout the menu, available on burritos and enchiladas or spooned over some kind of meat or vegetable.

Deep, dark chocolate-stained mole poblano also frequently appears. Recipes for Puebla's most iconic dish can contain 20 or more ingredients, which may include raisins, stale tortillas and plantains.

"It's definitely a process," said Quinto Sol co-owner Alexa Sol. "It takes a good half of the day [to make."

On the mole-poblano spectrum, this one veers toward the sweet end. During one visit, it was nuanced -- bite after bite failed to reveal its ingredients, as a good mole should. But another time, it tasted mainly of chocolate and cinnamon, with just a tingle of chile on the finish.

Inconsistency undercuts other dishes, too. Corn tortillas were rubbery at dinner but soft during lunch. The sangria was too sweet, with pineapple chunks and maraschino cherries instead of the menu's promised seasonal fruits. While service is friendly and speedy, sometimes the food comes out too fast, with entrees arriving before you've finished the appetizers.

No matter the misses, you can always rely on the bar. The motley pink onyx looks beautiful in the daytime. At night, it glows campfire yellow to match a series of backlit wall panels. Sit down and order a margarita. All will be well.

Quinto Sol

2201 Broadway St., Redwood City



Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m, 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday 5-9 p.m. Bar stays open one hour after kitchen closes.

Reservations: Sunday-Thursday

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street

Alcohol: full bar

Children: yes

Takeout: yes

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct ingredients used in Quinto Sol's mole. The restaurant does not use peanuts in its recipe.

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