That building in Plaza Midwood on the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth avenues — where Calle Sol, the buzzing new Latin café and cevicheria, is currently living its best life — has a past.
Of course, not being from here, I didn’t know this when I first went. My frame of reference for that location extended only as far back as its prior tenant, where in my first week in Charlotte, this Yankee had his first taste of shrimp and grits.
After that first visit to Calle Sol Neighborhood Latin Café & Cevicheria, though, a friend sent me a Charlotte Observer article from 1995, and I read about a regular named Margaret and the other colorful characters from disparate walks of life who knew her thanks to a place called The Penguin that had welcomed them all like family. And this was before a new timeline of drama began at the restaurant and carried through the 21st century.
There was a palpable history recounted in that story, a feeling of just how much the location meant to the neighborhood, and a sense that one singular dot on the map of Charlotte was where people once gathered to share special moments. And on every visit since then, it’s occurred to me that Calle Sol is not so different.
Years from now, we might even look back and see that Calle Sol was very much a welcome restaurant of its time. This is a restaurant where an accessible menu doesn’t preclude more than half of the neighborhood from walking in the door. The delicious food here isn’t only for the 1% to enjoy.
This is a restaurant where representation matters. “Latin” here isn’t some generic term for influencers to hashtag; it’s a multicultural celebration of people and food traditions that vary between cities, between countries, and on my favorite part of the menu, between continents.
But right now, in November 2021, it is also a restaurant opening right as masks and vaccinations have made it OK at last to go out and be social. Remember what going out and being social was like? In this way, Calle Sol is a time capsule of life during COVID-19, at the precise moment when all of us have started learning how to live again.
Oh, and to be in that moment.
Calle Sol and all its menus
It’s a moment, apropos of a cevicheria, to celebrate with ceviche. This is ceviche so fresh and vibrant that it does backflips in the bowl. Piquant and meaty chunks of marinated white fish, sweet potatoes, onions, coriander, chili, corn and crispy canchas — the mix and match of textures, flavors and temperatures is intoxicating, but it’s also a visual work of art, with every color of the rainbow given its due. The classic version is spicy enough, but if you want to take things up a notch, go for the rocoto, which wears its heat on its bright red sleeve.
It’s also a moment to toast with a cocktail — but only if you don’t want to get too drunk. I haven’t quite figured out why the daquiris here, which are perfectly fine, are nevertheless so light on the booze. Maybe it’s to keep you from getting too lost in the moment, or if you’re like me, from getting too lost in your Fredo fantasy, reliving that Godfather II scene and pretending to order daquiris in Cuba with your brother Michael. Just stick with beer. Beer is a much better match, anyway, for pretty much any of the food you might order.
And you will definitely want to order the vaca frita. Braised, shredded beef — tossed with garlic and onions — appears to have been pressed down on a hot grill with such almighty force that the flavor resulting from its crisp, charred edges elicits a “Holy cow!” that is both prayer and spontaneous utterance of wonder. It is, therefore, less of an issue that the black beans served on the side are not quite as commanding.
You might get that same thrill, though to a far lesser extent, from the lechon asado. I loved the sweet, sautéed onions on top, but the roast pork itself needed just a little something more to coax it from its slumber. For me, that something more was in the bottle of hot sauce on the table. Depending on your point of view, though, it’s either very wrong that you need a few lashings of hot sauce to bring out the flavor of the meat, or it’s oh-so-absolutely right.
And, for the most part, it really is oh-so right at Calle Sol.
Fusion as a force
Executive chef Paul Cruz does more than honor his Latin roots with the Cuban and Peruvian dishes here; he pulls those roots out and lets them soak in the sun. In dish after dish, he argues that this cuisine is as rich and complex as any other on a foodie’s radar, and the greatest successes on his menu are in those dishes where recipes and traditions connect, collide and explode into a quantum particle shower of nuance and perspective.
Take, for example, the Cubano. What a great sandwich, but the smart choice Chef Cruz makes is to make sure his diners know it is so much more than that. At Calle Sol, it’s a living, breathing document that maps out the Cuban experience in Florida and shows its evolution and divergence between the coasts.
With Miami, the Cubano presents itself as a version you’re more likely to recognize — as a sandwich stuffed with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, and then pressed into sweet, toasted oblivion. With Tampa, there’s even more roast pork, but also mayonnaise and slices of salami.
Which version do I prefer? I’ll never tell. OK, it’s just impossible to choose, really. Both versions are guilty fun, not to mention massive enough for two meals for two people over two days. And both versions — especially when paired with side of sweet, treacly and caramelized plantains — are such prime examples of glorious stoner food that either one would make the open-and-shut case for legalizing weed in this state.
What I will tell you is the best parts of my meals at Calle Sol have all been found on the side of the menu titled “Chino-Latino,” where Asia makes an appearance in dishes that embrace the diversity of Latin America by highlighting the Chinese immigrant experience and its impact on the food traditions of all three continents.
Cuban fried rice, for one, is obscenely delicious. There’s so much going on in this dish and coming at you from so many different directions that you may be tempted to prescribe it an Adderall. To be sure, on my first visit, it was so overwhelming that it was hard to eat more than a couple of spoonfuls.
But by my third visit, somehow roast pork, bacon, pineapple, plantains and a chock full kitchen sink of aromatics came together and found their balance. A sweet, salty, savory, citrusy aioli that is wildly slathered on top is another wonderful thing entirely.
The best of the best
My favorite dish on that side of the menu — my favorite dish at Calle Sol, really — is the Pasta Huancaína. It’s so wonderful that it’s hard to pin it down with just a few words. Calling it “spaghetti” is just rude, and calling it “yakisoba” somehow misses the point. A fistful of grilled shrimp thrown on top of mushrooms, onions and tomatoes is a wise first step in your journey to understand the many virtues of this dish, but true enlightenment will come only when you stop to ponder the sauce.
That mesmerizing huancaína sauce. It’s milk and queso fresco. It’s Aji Amarillo peppers imported from Peru. It’s also — in an unexpected twist — Saltine crackers. They’re all twirled and blitzed together into a wicked, creamy sauce that whips those noodles into shape, makes those vegetables cry for their mothers, and asserts itself as a fully formed beast with a beating heart and soul — with or without a few lashings of hot sauce.
This passion on the plate, you see, is passion you will see all around you at Calle Sol.
It’s the energy and pulse of the moment. Whether you’re at the bar, in a booth, or back in the cabana — or whether you roll up to the takeout window unannounced to satisfy a spontaneous craving — you’ll find that you’re not the only one there taking it all in, and that you’re not the only one there learning how to live again.
And that’s the thing about a restaurant occupying a place with a storied past, when the perspective and very inception are rooted so firmly in the present. With time and a few beers, and long after Chef Cruz and Calle Sol have moved on, you’ll look back and get what I mean.
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