Alfredo Solis was 19 when he came to the United States. He had traveled from Mexico City to San Diego and arrived at a friend’s apartment on a Friday night. By Monday morning, with no formal work experience or English skills, he had landed a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, where he spent hours hunched over a sudsy sink, cycling through plate after plate.
Seventeen years later, Solis is planted in the kitchen again—only this time, he’s overseeing the successful launch of Mezcalero, an emporium for Mexican street food that he started in D.C. with his sister. Hundreds of people showed up at its mid-January opening to get a taste of the 17 types of tacos, 60 mezcal varieties and regional specialties offered on the menu. In some cases, the snaking lines meant two-hour waits, but diners remained patient for artful servings of fluffy pambazo stuffed with fiery chorizo, strikingly bright ceviches and fresh corn tortillas overflowing with fine-spun carnitas.
“I’m just really happy,” he told me days after the hectic launch. “The opening, the restaurant, all of it is more than anything I expected.”
By now, Solis is a well-known chef who has worked his way up the culinary ladder and shaken saucepans at D.C. mainstays Acadiana and District Commons. Solis and his sister run El Sol, a perennially popular taqueria that opened two years ago. With Mezcalero, the brother-sister team is expanding Mexican dining options in the capital and solidifying their place as proprietors of some of the city’s best tacos.
Not that Solis would ever say that. He’s a modest and good-humored 36-year-old who shies away from self-accolades. He explains that food has always been a familiar passion for him, and his culinary chops come from his mother.
“She cooked every day, but she would always tell us, ‘My house is not a hotel, so if you don’t come on time for breakfast, you’re cooking your own food,’ ” Solis recalls. “I was always late, so I cooked for myself a lot.”
“I washed dishes as fast as I could so I would have free time to help the cooks and learn from them, and they made me a night cook.”
Growing up in Mexico City, Solis never seriously considered becoming a chef. He bagged groceries for extra cash and studied to be a mechanic for a couple of years. But when he turned 19, he began thinking about the United States, where his distant father lived. He lived on friend’s couches until he started the dishwashing job that would unexpectedly ignite his career.
Coworkers quickly noticed Solis because he was ambitious, efficient and endlessly dedicated. “I washed dishes as fast as I could so I would have free time to help the cooks and learn from them, and they made me a night cook,” he remembers. His only goal at the time was to support his family back in Mexico. He worked assiduously for four years until he had saved enough money to help his sisters apply for visas to come to the U.S.
The family eventually moved to D.C., where an acquaintance told Solis that the restaurant industry titan Passion Food Hospitality was looking for cooks. Solis had been logging endless hours at The Cheesecake Factory and Gordon Biersch, and impressed his potential employers enough to get a shot prepping dishes at the now-closed seafood staple D.C. Coast.
If there’s one characterization of Solis’ work ethic, it’s “head-down diligence.” He barely took vacations and his schedule left him no time to enroll in English classes or take cooking lessons. He learned everything on the job by paying meticulous attention—and his commitment didn’t go unrewarded. Chef Jeff Tunks promoted Solis to sous chef, then to executive chef, then to chef de cuisine across various Passion Food restaurants. Solis was managing openings around the city and helming entire kitchens filled with American-born gourmands who had culinary school degrees.
“I don’t even know how it happened exactly, I just remember Jeff always telling me, ‘You can do this.’” Solis says, looking back almost in bewilderment. “I was just doing my job and hoping everyone loved my food.”
On the weekend Trump took office, Solis signed Mezcalero up for a fundraiser in support of immigration advocacy group Casa de Maryland.
Jessica, Solis’s sister who also built her resume at Passion Food, frequently prodded her brother about starting a restaurant with her. The idea seemed like a distant daydream until Solis capitulated in 2015 and debuted El Sol to Washington foodies. Restaurant ownership wasn’t easy: “It was just the two of us all day long, from open to close, for a year and a half every day,” Solis says. But the duo won over the city. The Washington Post praised their corn tortillas rolled “whisper-thin” and D.C. denizens voted the eatery as one of Washington’s best cheap eats in 2016.
For their second act, the siblings opened Mezcalero to showcase Mexico’s variety beyond tacos. Here, they perfect searing, homemade sauces that add a surprise jolt of caustic spice to guisados and tortas. Solis now employs about 18-20 staff members between both restaurants and trains them himself. Two women work on either side of him, flattening out an endless stream of the signature made-to-order tortillas.
Most of the staff comes from El Salvador, reflecting the majority of Washington’s Latinx population. Many are immigrants to this country, and Solis tries to stay involved with the community when he can. Mezcalero opened just a week before Inauguration, and on the weekend President Trump took office, Solis signed Mezcalero up for a fundraiser in support of immigration advocacy group Casa de Maryland. But despite the transitional time in Washington, Solis says his priority has always—and will always— be food.
“I don’t care how much money, how many hours I work. I just care about how many people liked their dinner and how many people left my restaurant happy.”