Have you ever found yourself in a Mexican restaurant saying yes to more complimentary tortilla chips, even after you've polished off three big baskets in a row and a punch bowl's worth of salsa? We did. How could we not? Our waiter at Solita in Huntington Beach kept offering, and we kept obliging him because this wasn't just an ordinary basket of chips. Along with freshly fried tortilla triangles as light as Pringles, there were duros, oil-puffed wagon wheels of crunchiness that are a cross between Funyuns and Asian shrimp crackers. Do you know of any other restaurant that offers duros? I don't. I haven't even seen them at SOL Cocina, Deborah Schneider's first OC Mexican joint. So once we started munching on the airy hoops, licking our fingers of their grease, dunking them in the three kinds of salsa supplied to us, we decided we needed to keep the duros coming. And at Solita, the duros are limitless.
This is SOL's more stripped-down, casual, proletariat little sister. Located in the increasingly hard-to-navigate mega-strip mall that is Bella Terra, the restaurant's sign puts it quite bluntly: "Solita: Tacos & Margaritas," listing exactly the two things we Americans expect to get when we go out for Mexican at a place such as this. And you'd be quite happy limiting yourself to those things; but despite the name, Solita is an overachieving restaurant that doesn't conform to the conventions set by the El Torito chain or our expectations—it exceeds them. Schneider has put the sense of discovery back in eating at a Mexican restaurant aimed at gabachos, starting with those duros. There are items on the menu that most norteamericanos might not know Mexicans actually ate.
My companions were intrigued by the copa de frutas, wherein raw pineapple, honeydew, cucumber and jicama are cut into spears, jammed upright into a cocktail glass, and then served with a supermarket shaker of chile con limon. The menu correctly describes it as a "pushcart" staple, and the dish demonstrates how if you sprinkle the salty-sour-and-spicy powder on a pineapple, it brings out the fruit's sweetness even more.
Solita Tacos solitatacos.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$50, food only. Full bar.
Then there was the interpretation of rajas con crema (poblano strips in cream) that adds sautéed mushrooms in a white sauce made from cheese, heavy cream, wine and garlic. I last had the dish in Carlos Salgado's prix fixe at Taco Maria. Though this one resembles a chunky party dip at first glance, Schneider's version tastes almost identical to Salgado's and is just as decadently rich. You'll find it in Solita's antojitos section, along with nachos, a version of queso fundido and the same over-the-top guacamole served at SOL that looks more like a Cobb salad. But even the throwaway appetizer of coconut-breaded chicken fingers turned out to be excellent. The white meat practically gushed juice, and the lemon-spiked creamy salsa we thought was Ranch was anything but.
And when we ordered a ceviche, it came out the way a mariscos dive would serve it: in a gigantic chalice that could conceivably double as a winner's trophy. In the lime-juice vortex, we scooped up bits of fruit, avocado, serrano chiles, cucumber, salsa fresca and cubes of diced yellowtail firmed up by the acid. It may be a bit disingenuous that it's in the antojitos section, though, as the serving was a full meal in itself.
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But you do need to order some tacos, which come in delicate, exceedingly good, yellow-hued corn tortillas the size of your palm that are filled (if sometimes only halfway) with one of 13 meat and non-meat options—everything from a chorizo-bacon-and-sweet-potato mixture to battered shrimp, even a chile-and-garlic-rubbed tofu. Everything that was described as wood-grilled tasted like it, often smoky and flecked with char, as though the morsels were roasted atop a crackling campfire.
For a nominal fee, you could opt to have any of the meats fill a torta, quesadilla, enchilada, burrito, even something called "El Panzón" ("The Fat Man"), which is basically an overstuffed quesadilla that's described as a Mexican calzone. But you should order the carnitas as the full-on dish. It was, by far, the wettest and soupiest, but also the best I've had this year. In this dish of pure, unfiltered porkiness, the line between fat, meat and juice has never been so blurred. I spooned up a few sopping strands, folded them inside a warm flour tortilla, and ate that with nothing else.
To wash it down, instead of the margarita, try the horchata cocktail, a potent but soothing-as-cereal-milk mix of tequila, 1921 Crema and the house-made agua fresca. And then, when the waiter comes around to see if you want more duros and chips, do as we did four times over: Say, "¡Sí, por favor!"