Thursday, January 7, 2010

Can Food Really Save Downtown Flint?

Any good writer will confess that while the final product is certainly important, the thrilling part about writing is the process. Writers draw on inspiration and creativity, discover new and unique ideas, and turn mistakes and misdirected ideas into miracles. And so do cooks.

The best cooks, I think, are not afraid to take risks and are not afraid to fail. Cooking, like writing, is as much about revision as it is about creation. Revision, after all, is what helps one evolve in their craft and over time create better and better products. Soyla, the cook and owner of Downtown Flint's newest Mexican restaurant is a case in point.

When Soyla’s opened in the Wade-Trim Building on the corner of Saginaw and 2nd Streets less than a year ago, Soyla was not running the kitchen herself. Philip and I ate dinner there less than a week after they opened, and I was a little surprised to see a half dozen cooks crammed into the relatively small kitchen. It was a chaotic scene, to say the least.

The dining room was in a state of disarray as well and staffed by four teenage girls whose collective lack of experience at waiting tables was shocking. The food, which took a very long time to get, wasn’t very impressive. It wasn’t bad, it was just plain and bland. We stopped in two or three times after that, and things had changed very little. This was disheartening to me because Philip and I are big supporters of the downtown businesses and we want to see the revitalization of Flint continue, but we had our doubts about whether Soylas’ was going to make it.

Those doubts were all erased, however, after Stephanie and I dropped by Soyla’s today for the kickoff to part 2 of our 8-month tour of Flint’s Mexican restaurants. Soyla has made a number of significant revisions to her business and the results are simply amazing. Taking control of her kitchen was probably the smartest move she has made. I didn’t see anybody else back there with her, yet there were no long delays in the food getting out to the tables. With a restaurant the size of Soyla’s, it seats about 35 people, moving from six cooks to one was a sensible move.

The dining room had a different feel to it as well. There was no sense of chaos, confusion, or lack of experience as there had been on my previous visits. And amazingly, there was only one server covering the whole dining room. By the time we left there were six or seven tables of customers, which is more than enough to keep one server busy, but she was giving them all very good service.

The most impressive change to Soyla’s, though, is the food. I was stunned by the improvement in quality, flavor, visual appeal, and variety. In addition to the lunch and dinner crowd, Soyla’s is also carving out her own niche for a breakfast crowd. The menu is a bit leaner now, which probably has a big impact on how the kitchen is run. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen restaurant owners make is to put too many options on the menu. Having cooked in restaurants for more than 10 years, I’ve seen how expensive and inefficient it is to have an expansive menu. And the more choices you offer, the more difficult it is for the cook to get the food out in a timely manner. Soyla, I am pleased to see, has solved that problem.

Stephanie and I started our meal with an order of white queso, which was served with freshly chopped jalapeño peppers mixed in. The sweet taste of the cheese, combined with the hot and very flavorful peppers, made for a nice balance. The hand-made chips were more than worthy to be served with this delicious dip. They were warm, crispy, and well seasoned. The dip was three bucks and the chips an extra three fifty, which is a bit pricy for a lunchtime appetizer, but this one was well worth the expense.

I was a bit leary about ordering the chicken burritos because they were pretty dry and bland the last time I ordered them, but based on the quality of our queso appetizer, I was willing to take the risk. Stephanie ordered the beef enchilada lunch combo. Both platter were served with beans and rice. Stephanie was on the ball and ordered spicy rice and beans, and I followed suit as if I had always known that this was an option. In fact, I did not.

The chicken burritos were far superior to what I had eaten on previous visits. The chicken was moist and seasoned in a slightly spicy sauce, wrapped in fresh tortillas, and covered with a light and tasty gravy and a generous amount of melted cheese (which, like every other place, was extra). Stephanie’s enchilada’s were equally well constructed and just as tasty as my burritos.

The beans were pretty good, but the spicy Mexican rice was a big hit. It was made with fresh onions and green peppers and flavored with a just the right amount of cayenne pepper. This rice rivals any of the other places we’ve eaten at so far. I think it was La Familia Morales that had the best rice so far, but I will add Soyla’s spicy rice as a TTC contender.

As we were finishing our drinks and commiserating about going back to work, Soyla came out from the kitchen and stopped by our table to see if we enjoyed our lunch. I told her it was a vast improvement over my last visit and that it was definitely the best food I had eaten here since she opened. That’s when she told us about all the changes. She is also very proud that she uses only fresh ingredients in her dishes, and even the salsa was made in house from scratch.

Soyla was most proud of the tamales, though, that she makes fresh every day. She even made a couple and brought them out to us so we could see for ourselves. I’m not a big fan of tamales and I never order them, but I didn’t want to insult our host so I tried one. Since I don’t eat them, I didn’t have anything to compare this one to, but I really liked it, especially the shredded beef filling. Stephanie, who is a much bigger tamale fan, gave it high marks.

Soyla’s strikes me as a great hangout for local college students, but according to Soyla, not many of them frequent her restaurant. Well students, if any of you are reading my blog, you really need to give Soyla’s a try. Not only do they have good food at reasonable prices, but Soyla offers a 50% discount to any student who shows their college identification. How on earth can you beat that? But wait, there’s more. Soyla’s also has free Wi-Fi, so you can get on Facebook for free and tell all your friends to come down and join you. With breakfast, lunch, and dinner option, any time’s a good time to come to Soyla’s. Help support downtown Flint and give it a try.


  1. So glad to hear things have improved at Soyla's. I heard so many bad things about it after it opened I've never even gone in, and wrote it off. But with your trustworthy assessment, I'm now willing to give it a try. Thanks for the re-visit!

  2. I will have to give it another try, I was not impressed either after my first visit a few months back. I'm glad to hear things have improved.

  3. I sure hope you all have the positive experience we had. Soyla's really needs to build bigger customer base if they're going to make it. I believe they will.

  4. I'm really happy to read this. since I live, study, and work downtown, I was thrilled to see Soylas move in. I ate there three or four times between opening day and August and was sadly underwhelmed. The food and service were simply too average to encourage other's to pay Soyla's a visit, and after a few months, and the opening of other options downtown, the convenience factor was no longer a draw for me. I will have to go back sometime this week, and invite a fellow student or two to re-discover this place.

  5. Thanks, Bob. I'd stopped by Soyla's once but like you was totally unimpressed. The staff was inexperienced, half of the things we ordered the kitchen had run out of ingredients for and the food was a bit bland.

    I'm glad to hear she's made improvements. Though I must say that $6.50 seems a bit steep for chips and cheese. However, you've convinced me to give this place another go.

  6. John, let me know how it turns out. I hope they've brought the much needed consistency to their operation.

  7. I am so glad that you are writing about downtown establishments. I just started a blog myself discussing downtown, and what has lead me and others to try to make it a better place. Hopefully I can get some people to check it out and contribute! I will also have to try Soyla's again, because I had a similar reaction to the rest of these folks.

  8. Dear corner office,

    I'll sign up to follow your blog, and I'll make mention of it in one of my posts. Good to know that others are writing about Flint, too. The more the better!


  9. I was hoping you would review Soyla's, Bob. :) Soyla is actually my cousin so when she told me a good 3 years ago that she was going to open a Mexican restaurant downtown, I was geeked. But, like you and quite a few others have noted, I too was quite disappointed. I hyped this restaurant up for months and was there on opening day with a number of my coworkers. The first few weeks were utter chaos in that place: where do you order? Who waits on you? Do you actually have what I plan to order? I was having a hard time continuing to recommend the place to my downtown friends when I myself knew the service was bad and you likely couldn't get in and out of there in your typical one hour lunch.

    The last time I was there was a few months ago and I was definitely relieved to see much improvement. Although I'm still hoping for some type of family discount, the food was hot, the service was stellar and I definitely took note of Soyla in the kitchen.

    Like you said, Soyla's has a lot more competition these days and I'd like to see her stick around. I should put my money where my mouth is and plan a trip there soon!

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  11. It's music to my ears to hear that Soyla's has improved. My two experiences there have been dreadful, so I swore off ever returning. As a college student, excited to hear about that amazing %50 discount - I'll return and give the place another chance.

  12. Robert, good to hear from you. Hope your first year at the U. is going well. Let me know how your return visit turns out.

  13. I don't know Bob, with so many options for good Mexican Soyla's just doesn't cut it with me. I was just there a few weeks ago and as one of two tables it was just a rediculous wait for overpriced food. It must have taken 40 minutes for quesadillas. I'll take El Cozumel or La Familia over Soyla's any day.

  14. Dear Anonymous, I keep getting comments that are split between your experience and mine. Looks Like Soyla's still has some work to do.

  15. Wow, I had no idea there was a 50% discount for students...I wish I had taken advantage of that before I graduated! I did dine at Soyla's several times as a student, but I didn't know about that great deal. I hope Soyla has the means to get that piece of information out to more students. I can definitely say that I will do my part and tell my student friends about the deal!