SOLON– Since starting renovation work about a month ago, El Sol co-owner Diego Rivera said he has received 100 percent positive feedback about the Mexican restaurant coming to town.
He thinks this lofty percentage might be a good omen for opening night.
“It’ll be crazy Friday,” Rivera said. “Everybody wants to try the new restaurant and I can only fit 60 people in here at a time.”
Formerly involved in the ownership and operation of Los Cabos and La Casa Tequila restaurants, Rivera, 34, has joined financial forces with friend and co-owner Jose Meza to bring a Mexican restaurant to Solon. When the restaurant opens this Friday at 4 p.m., it will be the culmination of an idea that Rivera has had on his mind for awhile.
“I’ve wanted to target the Solon area for a long time,” Rivera said. “I wanted to go to a place that wasn’t so saturated with restaurants.”
Rivera lives in Coralville with his wife Gabriela, a University of Iowa employee, and their two children. He said there was some culture shock when his father first moved the family to Iowa from the large urban environment of Monterrey, Mexico in 1988. However, since that time, Rivera said he has come to appreciate smaller communities and what they have to offer a business like El Sol.
“It grows on you,” Rivera said of living in Iowa. “I like living here. I like knowing people on a first name basis instead of customers just eating and then leaving.”
It is this love of working with people that first enticed Rivera to become involved in the restaurant business. In 1996 he worked as a server at Cancun Restaurant while attending Kirkwood Community College. Later, he co-owned Los Cabos restaurant with Antonio Pancheco, and then in 2009 helped Pancheco start La Casa Tequila restaurant, now located in North Liberty and Tiffin.
It was at Los Cabos, when the restaurant was struggling, that Rivera worked for the first time as a staff cook, and he found that he enjoyed that part of the business as well.
“I had cooked for myself before but I had never worked in a restaurant kitchen like that,” Rivera said. “I really enjoyed it.”
Since parting ways with Pancheco, Rivera said he wants to use the freedom of starting his own restaurant as license to try some new ideas. He designed La Casa Tequila’s menu, and said El Sol’s menu will be a similar blend of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine that people are used to finding at other Mexican restaurants – with some key differences.
For one, Rivera said the restaurant will use habanero peppers more than some other restaurants that shy away from using the spicy pepper for fear of using it incorrectly.
“If you know how to cook it, and you get the right amount into a dish, it has a very distinct flavor,” Rivera said.
Other special dishes include chicken molé, fried tilapia, pico de gallo with mango, a Buffalo Bill burrito made with locally raised buffalo and a dish called molcajete – an entree platter that will include fresh grilled cactus, fresh cheese, smoked sausage, ribeye platter and guacamole.
Rivera said the restaurant will open with its full menu and aim for prices that average about $10 a meal. He said he wants to keep the prices in this range to cater primarily to families.
“It’s important to set the prices that you want a year from now,” Rivera said. “As a new restaurant, I think you want to make a good impression where people will know things are going to be the same every time they come.”
Rivera said he will be seeking community input on how to improve the restaurant even more after it opens. El Sol’s phone number is 624-2020; its web site, when completed, will be located at www.elsoldesolon.com . Comments are welcome, he said.
“One of my main goals with the restaurant is to eliminate the things that have annoyed me about other restaurants,” Rivera said, citing unfriendly service as an example. “I tried to address those things and make sure they don’t happen here.”
In the month leading up to opening, Rivera said he and others installed booth seating, fixed up the bar, refurnished the kitchen and painted the walls a warm yellow orange.
Rivera said he is going to continue on improving the restaurant after it opens, including a mural that will be painted on the side of the building this spring done by a painter he knows in Santa Fe, N.M.
He also said he wants to be present in Solon by sponsoring different events in town.
“I like to be involved in the community,” Rivera said. “After all, these are the people who are going to keep you open.”
For now, though, Rivera said he is trying to work out the kinks for El Sol’s grand opening.
“I’m definitely nervous. I just want to make sure things run properly,” Rivera said of his feelings leading up to the opening. “I’m really, really excited about opening up in a small town like this.”
El Sol will be open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. The restaurant will be closed on Mondays.