At the casino and short on cash. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to find himself in this situation. Unlike most, however, I hadn’t gambled my wallet away. No, I work too hard for my money to do that. Rather, I was doing it as an experiment. I wanted to see if I could find a decent meal for two at for under $30.
The casino restaurants aren’t known for being a bargain, so I had serious doubts. I tried my luck at Sol Toro Tequila Grill, where the menu posts several promising choices for around $5 apiece. After trying them, I can say it is possible to fill your belly there cheaply, but my advice to the gamblers would be to quit while you’re ahead—ahead by more than $30.
My experiment started with a bowl of chicken tortilla soup ($6.95), and it was a good start. The thick, roasted-tomato broth contained shreds of chicken and, in the center of the wide, shallow bowl, a pile of tortilla strips, chunks of avocado, rings of pasilla chile peppers, creamy queso fresco, sour cream, and scallions.
The soup was a little too cool, and the rings of dried peppers were annoyingly chewy but added a pleasant roasted flavor. The salty crunch of the tortilla strips added fun, the same kind of fun as putting potato chips inside a sandwich. My favorite spoonfuls were the ones with the scallions, which burst with flavor because they were coarsely cut and still fresh.
Afterwards, I perused the appetizer-sized choices in the Fiesta Five portion of Sol Toro’s menu—five dishes for $5 each. I passed over the empanadas, queso fundido, tamales, and stuffed jalapenos and settled on the shrimp ceviche. A tall cocktail glass of citrus-marinated shrimp and serrano peppers came with a pile of crisp tortilla chips. I spooned a little of the marinade in the bottom of the glass on a few of the chips to make the most of the flavors. It all made for a refreshing, cilantro-laced snack, but this ceviche was no match for a more authentic version I savored recently at in New London.
With my palate cooled, I tried two fiery appetizers from a special menu section called “Can You Take the Heat?” Sol Toro ranks the five options here - $4.95 each - on a spiciness scale of one to three stars. One star means “very hot & spicy,” two mean “ludicrously hot & spicy,” and three are “steam-coming-out-of-your-ears hot & spicy.”
Warming up, I tried the pork tacos at one star. These were truly mild, not “very hot & spicy” at all, but very tasty. Tender chunks of pork were marinated with onions, two types of peppers, and pineapple — although I didn’t actually see or taste any pineapple — and topped two soft mini tortillas. Although mild, the tacos came with an incredibly spicy salsa macha on the side. Just a few drops could make the tacos inferno-hot, if that’s what you like.
The same sauce came on the side with the cinco chiles burrito, stuffed full with skirt steak and peppers, a more-than-generous portion for $4.95. Ranked at three stars, it wasn’t quite steam-out-your-ears hot, but the combination of poblanos, jalapenos, serranos, habaneros, and chipotles produced a heat to be reckoned with. The burrito was dressed with a smoky, roasted salsa. Both the burrito and the tacos also came with a scoop of rice. Neither dish moved me to tears, but they were better than the usual, boring, cheese-and-beans Tex Mex.
I hogged all of this food myself, but if I had shared the meal with someone else, I would have done so as follows: One person could eat the chicken tortilla soup and the pork tacos. The second person could enjoy the three-star-spicy burrito before cooling off with the ceviche. And share the chips. This meal wouldn’t be huge, and it wouldn’t be unforgettably delicious, but it would more or less satisfy you after a night of gambling, win or lose.