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Sol y Luna Tapas & Tequilas is an Alabama original

Sol y Luna did it first.

This restaurant, when it originally opened in 1998, introduced Birmingham to an elevated version of Mexican cuisine. Beautifully plated, delicious, imaginative dishes were served alongside premium tequilas meant to be sipped and savored in a sophisticated space that celebrated an ancient culture and encouraged a true dining experience.

This same level of tasty authenticity continues today at Sol y Luna Tapas & Tequilas. The location is different, but most of the faces are the same and the Castro family’s passion for sharing their food and culture with friends old and new remains absolutely steadfast.

“We are Mexican, not Tex-Mex,” says Jorge Castro who is an owner-partner in Sol y Luna. “It’s a Mexican restaurant, a little bit upscale.” (There’s table service here but not white tablecloths and they do take reservations, but Castro is talking more about the food.) “When I say ‘upscale’ we are trying to use the original items that we use in Mexico.” Many of these ingredients are sourced locally at Mi Pueblo; other things come from family connections in Mexico and California. Many are items you won’t find at other restaurants in town.

Sol y Luna Tapas & Tequilas is elevating Mexican cuisine in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

This intentionality and attention to detail honors Mexico’s rich food history that goes back thousands of years and draws upon diverse cultures, including indigenous ones as well as Spanish, French, West African, Caribbean and Portuguese. The dishes at Sol y Luna are made with a deep understanding and appreciation for this culinary heritage and reflect what people who live there eat.

“Mexico is surrounded by large oceans … a small piece of land in the middle,” Castro says. “People don’t realize we eat a lot of seafood. So, our menu is based on a lot of seafood. We have shrimp, we have mussels, we have snapper. … We’re trying to utilize that combined with original flavors from Mexico.”

So, instead of endless chips and salsa and piles of nachos and chimichangas on shredded lettuce, you will find crabmeat enchiladas with a chile guajillo sauce and fresh slaw; a tomatillo lobster soft taco served on a cream sauce with roasted corn and peppers and a topping of crisp sweet potato chips; and “iron skillet mussels” cooked in a chipotle, garlic and chardonnay broth bright with fresh lime juice. Fresh guacamole comes with house-made sweet potato chips, potato chips and tortilla chips.

There are chicken chilaquiles here, too, and even this humble dish is dressed up with roasted serrano-tomatillo sauce and Chihuahua cheese. Empanadas are filled with fried duck and served with chimichurri sauce. Beef tenderloin is sliced thinly into medallions and topped with melted Chihuahua cheese and sundried chipotle chile tomato chutney.

The Chile en Nogada is inspired by a dish in the classic book “Like Water for Chocolate.” It’s a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef that’s seasoned with dried tropical fruits, cinnamon and other spices and topped with creamy goat cheese, pomegranate and a garlicky pecan sauce. Those who have read the novel (or watched the film) understand why the Castros used to have it as a seasonal dish served around Valentine’s Day. Now it’s available every day.

Longtime fans of Sol y Luna will recognize the fiery Shrimp Diabla, a chipotle and tequila flambe of jumbo shrimp served on garlic mashed sweet potatoes, and the Red Snapper al Mojo de Ajo, which is sautéed snapper and jumbo shrimp finished with a reduction of wine, dried chiles de arbol, garlic and onion.

These all are tapas dishes served family-style on large, handmade wooden boards that hold several plates and encourage sharing and the sense of closeness that comes from a communal dining experience.

“With the family, the best time is at the table, around the meals,” Castro says. “We’re trying to utilize that idea, to share the food. That’s why the main thing at Sol y Luna is tapas. It’s small portions so you can share with all the people at your table. … It’s a way you can talk a little bit more, you can have a little more fun and enjoy your meal.”

Sol y Luna was the inspiration of Jorge’s brother Guillermo Castro, who opened the original restaurant in Lakeview. It was a hit from the start. But in 2011, Guillermo died of a heart attack; his family and the Birmingham food community grieved the loss. The original Sol y Luna closed a few years later, but the Castro family continued to operate a popular sister restaurant, Cantina Tortilla Grill.

Jorge, who was the bartender at the original Sol y Luna, and his family reopened the restaurant in 2020 in the new and growing Lane Parke development in Mountain Brook Village. (Jorge and another brother, Alex, also ran Cantina in the Pepper Place district until it was displaced in 2019.) This new Sol y Luna serves lunch, brunch and dinner and has a thriving catering business that does everything from family suppers to wedding parties to feeding international guests in town for The World Games. Active in their community, they are part of the upcoming inaugural FOOD + Culture event, too, showcasing the Magic City.

Family will always be at the heart of this business.

Alex is a partner in the restaurant. Castro’s wife, Aimee, handles front-of-the-house duties. Castro’s namesake son works in the bar when he’s in town. Meanwhile, their cousin Luis recently joined the team to run the bar full time.

“We’re really close,” Castro says of his extended family. He recently returned from a wedding in Mexico where he saw relatives from all over the world – Guillermo’s sons, cousins from Oaxaca, brothers and cousins who live in Birmingham.

“When all the people get involved, it’s the biggest party because we’re not working,” Castro says. “We’re just enjoying ourselves, being around our family. You’re still learning from your family, no matter they’re young, no matter they’re old.” This feeling of family closeness translates to how they do business at Sol y Luna, he says. “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people leave here with a smile.”

The original Sol y Luna had some 30 premium tequilas; the new restaurant features up to 80 different options including silver, reposado, añejo, a Sol y Luna collection as well as mezcal. Castro says they travel to Jalisco to learn about tequila and how the best ones are made so they can, in turn, inform their customers. The tequila samplers are excellent ways to learn, he says. “You can taste and smell the differences between the tequilas. We have a lot of customers who come back just because they want to learn more about the experience of the tequila.”

The margaritas made with these tequilas are popular. The “Perfect,” which is “where it all started,” is made with Hornitos Plata, a house mix, orange liqueur and fresh lime. The Sol y Luna margarita features a bolder Hornitos Reposado and a serrano pepper. The Puerto Vallarta version reflects flavors from the coasts of Jalisco with Hornitos Reposado, tamarind and triple sec and a tamarind stick garnish. You can get the beloved, award-winning Cantina margarita (including the prickly pear version) as well as popular ranch water made with Casamigos Blanco.

The food and drinks are certainly the main draws, but the space beckons, too.

A smattering of white lights outside creates a magical patio; a colorful chandelier – a riot of glass swirls – hangs above a family-friendly corner booth near the front of the dining room. That and the mural near the bar stand out against crisp white walls.

Niches here and there hold handmade items and candles. But the large Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) memorial in the back of the dining room is what draws your attention. It’s a community space, Aimee says of the wall that holds photos of departed loved ones (their own family members and family of friends and customers, too), icons and mementos draped in marigold garland. In the middle is a large mural on canvas by Birmingham artist Arthur Price that is dedicated to Guillermo.

There’s a butterfly at the top, and that represents the afterlife, Aimee says. There’s a field of agave. And there’s a bull with a prominent heart. “Arthur Price was a really good friend of Guillermo,” Castro says. “He made three or four big murals for our restaurants. … The bull with the heart was because he was always saying, ‘Guillermo looked like a bull, but he had a big heart.’”

Diners will notice Guillermo’s portrait at the end of the bar, and the placement was intentional. “That’s where he would be if he were still here,” Aimee says. “That was his favorite place,” Castro adds. “He was right there at the corner of the bar just watching. If he saw someone new, he’d say, ‘Send them a shot of tequila. Send them a margarita. Send them something.’ Just for people to try something different. … We miss our brother Guillermo. I don’t know, maybe he’s over there in heaven trying to see what we’re doing. We can feel it.”

In the meantime, Castro and his family that is his team continue to share authentic experiences with Birmingham. They are doing a series of wine dinners that incorporate new dishes as well as favorites from the former Los Angeles restaurant that was next door to the original Sol y Luna.

“The last two years, I’ve been in Mexico and have met chefs from Oaxaca, chefs from the north,” Castro says. “And the idea is just to have two or three really nice dinners. Bring in those chefs to the city and show the people what is really the good stuff over there. … When you go to the south, when you go to Oaxaca, the food is completely different than the food in the center of the country or the north of the country.” Some Mexican dishes have been made the same way for centuries, he says; some are hyperlocal and are only made in certain villages.

Castro sees this as a chance to collaborate with other chefs, to share new flavors and experiences with his customers here and to help local nonprofits with the proceeds. “So, we can offer something really, really nice and, at the same time, help somebody else here. … We want to show people the most original food that is happening now in Mexico. Something that we don’t (have) here yet. And after that, to incorporate these ideas into the menu.”

This sharing of culture and history and flavors has “always, always been,” Castro says. “This is what we learned from Guillermo. That’s the best thing that you can offer. Something that you have in your background … you’re sure of what you are talking about … and when people try, taste, smell, that’s going to be the best experience.”

Being passionate about the food and their customers is key to their success, Castro adds. “Your food depends upon your feelings. If you are not passionate about your food, the food is not going to be good. You need to have that sense of passion so you can offer that to your people.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

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