Upscale Mexican (Finally) Done Right at SOL Cocina
Guacamole With SOL
Imagine your (non-permanent) surprise when you dig into the fresh, refined and delicious offerings from Deborah Schneider’s cocina
I had my doubts when I heard that a cookbook author named Deborah Schneider was opening a Mexican restaurant called SOL Cocina at the old Mama Gina’s site in Newport Beach. There were just too many things to be cynical about. First, they had hired a PR firm to lobby local food blogs and this paper. For someone who lives to discover new places by word of mouth or by accident, that’s always a buzzkill.
But most important was a personal and inherent prejudice I hold about any kind of shoreward migration of Mexican cuisine. Great Mexican food—as my distinguished partner Gustavo Arellano has shown you on these pages over the years—is plentiful and cheap inland, offered for a pittance in countless corner taquerías, roving loncheras, and hole-in-the-wall mom-’n’-pops. Any restaurant in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach better have a good reason for pricing it to extravagance.
My skepticism is colored by visions of past combo plates from too many chains. I’ve eaten many an enchilada gut bomb, covered in cheese, drowning in red sauce, and served with the perfunctory side of Spanish rice and refried beans. I blame those countless Mexican knock-offs (especially the ones on PCH) that have repeated this formula, duping the public into paying a small fortune for a salsa-induced heartburn and overplayed fajitas on a sizzling platter.
After handing my keys to the valet (yes, parking is valet-only), brushing past collagened-and-Botoxed blondes, and finally sitting down at a table with a prime view of the Newport Marina, I prepared myself for more of the same. But SOL started to chip away at my doubts the minute their complimentary bean dip arrived. It subbed for salsa, while whole, thick tostada rounds with a Richter-scale crunch pinch-hit for tortilla chips.
My tablemates and I broke off jagged pieces of tostada and used them to scoop up the earthy, smoky paste made from milled black beans and beer. Upon tasting it, we immediately shared looks of surprise. But unlike the expressions of permanent bewilderment injected into the faces of those at a nearby booth, ours also conveyed relief. This wasn’t what we were expecting. There would be no fajita platters tonight.
I read later that Schneider, the chef responsible for shattering our preconceptions, earned a James Beard nomination for her Mexican cookbook. And as an executive chef, her résumé at top-end restaurants all over San Diego extends to an impressive length. But it was our server who paid her the greatest compliment. When I tried to order the customizable guacamole, complete with nopales and chicharrones as choices, he steered me away, suggesting the cheaper house version with set toppings of mango, goat cheese, toasted pine nuts and cilantro arranged over the avocado puree like a Cobb salad.
“I trust the chef; she knows what she’s doing,” he said as he motioned toward the blond boss, who commanded a large crew of uniformed men in an open kitchen as though she were conducting a symphony. Around her, cleavers chopped carnitas into a porky pulp, tortillas flipped on griddles, and flames leaped.
My server’s recommendation on the guacamole wasn’t the only sound advice he gave on the food. After all, here was a man who knew the cuisine, having grown up on home-cooked meals made by mami. Order the crudo, he suggested. As he touched on the influence of Japanese immigrants in Baja California, we listened and poured the lime-soy sauce over sultry-cool slices of Australian yellowtail and salmon, tucking the cilantro and bits of serrano chiles under the folds of its creamy flesh.
Fish did well in other forms, too. Chopped California sea bass got an acid-sear from lime juice to become a bracing ceviche that’s mixed with pico de gallo and topped with a wagon wheel of avocado slices and spread out on a plate like a steak tartare. A small but moist halibut steak was broiled and served as pibil over a banana leaf and a pooling sauce that had hints of coconut milk.
But it was an appetizer that spoke volumes on what the restaurant was about. The chipotle-piloncillo goat cheese, with its dense scoop of the Philly-like gob of salty richness, was surrounded by a spicy, dark-caramel syrup made from melted piloncillo, the traditional, raw brown sugar of Mexico largely unknown to Americans. This syrup seduced me: simultaneously hot, sweet, complex and worldly, like Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo.
SOL also offers tacos of different varieties, all dutifully successful, tender, flavorful, wrapped around properly softened two-bite corn tortillas and priced at $6 per pair (less when you order them in multiples of six or a dozen). But the carnitas that filled the tacos came from Kurabuta pig and the beef from antibiotic- and hormone-free Meyer Angus cattle. How apt, I thought. Only in Newport Beach would the taco meat contain fewer additives than the residents.
SOL Cocina at 251 Pacific Coast Hwy., Newport Beach, (949) 675-9800; www.solcocina.com. Open daily for lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, 4-11 p.m. Late-night menu available Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. Full bar.
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