A Cantina With Mexican Soul

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Luckily, the Tacos Vampiros at SOL Cocina don’t just come out at night.

Last year, Chris and I wandered into SOL Mexican Cocina in search of authentic Mexican food and a great fish taco. It happened to be SOL’s first anniversary, so we celebrated by ordering an array of Baja-inspired dishes from the menu and a few tequila-based cocktails to toast their success.

What we discovered was a restaurant that elevates the simple fish taco to an art form, and prides itself on a menu that reflects the vast culinary delights Mexico has to offer.

Ironically, Chris and I returned to SOL a few weeks ago, on the eve of SOL’s second anniversary. So, once again, we toasted SOL’s success with a few muddled cocktails. Chris ordered the Blueberry Acai Margarita, and I had a non-alcoholic version of the Cucumber Jalapeno Margarita, which was unbelievably refreshing.

SOL’s interior is redolent of old Mexico.

Before diving into SOL’s menu, we spoke with Executive Chef/Partner Deborah Schneider to ask her about SOL’s philosophy. In the process, we discovered that Deborah is the soul behind SOL.

“When I first came to San Diego and met my current husband, we went to Mexico a lot because he likes to surf there,” she recalled at one point. “I started eating at food stands because street food in Mexico is fresher and healthier than the restaurants. The preparations were so inventive that I got curious about the food. In Baja, they have amazing seafood, fish, lobster, crab, oysters, mussels, clams—everything! And it’s always fresh and delicious. I fell in love with the food and the place at the same time.

“I am French trained and was preparing French food at the time. Everyone I was working with was from Mexico and I noticed the other chefs adding chiles to certain dishes. I paid attention and asked questions. I learned where the chefs were from, learned about their families, traditions, and began to see the rich culture through their eyes. But most of all, I learned about the real authentic taste of Mexican food, and that’s what I am creating here at SOL.”

“Your menu certainly reflects a healthier approach to Mexican cuisine,” I commented as a number of dishes appeared tableside.

“Actually, the indigenous ingredients of Mexico are flavorful and very healthy. It’s not what most people think. More than half the menu is vegetarian and gluten-conscious. Mexican food is where Italian food was 30 years ago—you’d expect to see spaghetti and meatballs on the menu. Suddenly, people started to learn about the different regions of Italy, the different cheeses, and influences. Mexican food is now poised on the brink, where people realize it’s not just cowboy food anymore.”

“Speaking of which, this food is so colorful, vivid and fresh tasting,” Chris offered. “What are these dishes?”

“You just tried the Panuchos, which are ancho chile empanadas stuffed with locally-made Mexican cheeses, spiced winter squash and sweet potato,” Schneider described.

“The Taco Vampiros are out of this world,” I said, taking a bite. “The carne asada with chipotle sauce, serrano chile and cotixa cheese is spicy good.”

“If you like spicy, you’ll love the Hot & Raw Tropical Ceviche,” Schneider pointed out the dish to me. “They do a lot of ceviche in Veracruz—adding the habanero chile was my idea. The idea is if you like heat, stir the habanero in and let it sit for a minute—it will be perfect and won’t destroy your palate.”

“The Warmed Goat Cheese is unique,” Chris said as he spread the mixture onto a tostada.

“There is a taco in Pueblo that is very traditional: chipotle stuffed with goat cheese. I tried to make it once and it took me all day,” Schneider said with a grin. “I went in another direction and that is what came out of it—a modern take on an old standard.”

Coconut Pineapple Martini.

We refreshed our cocktails, Chris opting for the Coconut Pineapple Martini and for myself, the non-alcoholic version of the Ginger Tangerine Martini.

“Deb, I love that all of your cocktails can be made without alcohol,” I stated.

“Most of the ingredients that go into them can be mixed with fruit juices or sparkling mineral water just as easily,” Schneider smiled.

“So, you’re coming into your second year now—a pretty exciting endeavor. What have you gleaned in the last year, what have you tweaked and what are you in pursuit of?” I asked.

“Mole,” Schneider laughed. “Mole is something I compare to bagels—I cannot make a bagel to save my life. I talk to it. I reason with it. It just does not happen. Mole is the same: It’s something you make again and again. It’s all about technique. I am working on a mole negro, based on a recipe that is four pages long, requires three hours of stirring and knowing when to add the next ingredient at the right time. It’s all about technique. I am getting there.”

Based on our first two visits to SOL Cocina, we have no doubt Chef Deborah’s mole negro will be inspirational. For our next visit, however, we’re going to make a reservation in advance. We’d like to celebrate SOL’s third anniversary in style–same time, next year.

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