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After a few uncertain steps, the Newport Beach Baja cantina is walking tall
Bite into unripened fruit or swig immature wine and you’ll get a harsh lesson on the perils of haste. The same is true for new restaurants—judge too soon and you’ll miss the formation of a star. Sol Cocina is one of those nascent stars.
Open since July, the Baja-inspired cantina lured heavy crowds in its early months. A Coast Highway location, promising fare, and a rocking bar drew Newport Beach locals, tourists, and fickle scene-hoppers. Silicone, suntans, and stilettos stole the show while the bustling open kitchen gamely churned out mountains of guacamole in a room so loud that diners and wait staff had to bellow just to ask a question. To say Sol was hot on arrival is an understatement. Still, the food was uneven, the setting harried.
But restaurants change quickly in their first months. Return visits reveal a more focused, less-frenzied operation. The iPhone set is thinning. Mercifully, new insulation now dampens the notorious din. And best of all, executive chef Deborah Schneider’s vibrant fare tastes fully realized and more consistent with each recon mission.
The departure of previous tenant Mama Gina, a tired and fusty Florentine trattoria, freed up the plum PCH site. Hotshot restaurant designer Thomas Schoos quickly transformed it into a sleek, relaxed space, where sunlight streams through large windows that frame a quiet channel off Newport Harbor. The interior evokes Mexico’s coastal vibe with iron candelabra, candle-lit wall niches, and a circular fireplace in the bar. It’s no wonder the massive rustic doors opened to an eager mob.
Founders Matt Baumayr and Rich Howland, both habitués of Baja, discovered San Diego-based Schneider via her acclaimed cookbook “Baja! Cooking on the Edge” (Rodale Press, 2006). Installing Schneider at Sol is brilliant—her menu radiates a genuine grasp of the culinary diversity of the region. Schneider works the line at least weekly, but head chef Octavio Flores helms the kitchen most nights. Clearly, they are simpatico—an affection shared by enthusiastic servers who capably convey solid understanding of the cuisine.
Meals begin with a wobbly pile of corn tortillas, fried flat and nut brown, ready to crack into shards for scooping up earthy black-bean dip, loose and tender from braising in beer. A teensy trio of shallow bowls supplies lime wedges, salt, and orange ancho salsa—the dishes are more miniature still life than useful condiment given their size. Impeccably fresh guacamole is the bright-green darling of the appetizers roster; it’s served in a stone grinding bowl for maximum Baja mojo.
I’m happy to see the complicated (if novel) DIY “rainbow” guacamole off the menu and no longer drawing attention from the versions that remain—the simple “naked” version, and the terrific Sol signature mix with mango, tequila, mild goat cheese, and pine nuts.
Other top appetizer choices are a draw between the perfect stuffed masa pockets called panuchos, and the sublime warm goat cheese dripping with spicy piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar) syrup. On my visits, the fried panuchos’ ancho-spiked masa holds roasted kabocha squash and queso fresco; black beans, juicy pico de gallo and pickled jalapeño pieces supply rustic ballast. But I’m still craving another scoop of that piloncillo creation, its dewy goat cheese scattered with crunchy peanuts; the interplay of chipotle heat, dark sweetness, tangy dairy, and salty nuts is heavenly.
You may get a better, cheaper taco from your favorite taco truck, but Sol’s many choices are well crafted and satisfying. The first-rate ingredients are noteworthy—carne asada is made with Meyer Natural Beef, carnitas rely on Kurobuta pork, even the chicken is culled for its rich, dark meat. I like the nervy heat of the Taco Vampiro, a double-layer affair enfolding gooey cheese, serrano chilies, carne asada, and guacamole, all set off by chipotle aioli I wish were sold by the quart. Still, tacos seem rather basic and pricey in contrast to so many other interesting creations.
Raw fans should not miss the exquisite crudo. Expertly cut planks of seasonal fish glisten with a restrained splash of lime-soy dressing. Bright-green scallions and red wheels of fiery serranos are sliced thinly for sparks of gusto that contrast with the fish’s buttery opulence. At $15 it’s not cheap, but the portion of sashimi-grade fish is generous. That same fish impresses again as the key player in sublime ceviche that demonstrates how just five fresh ingredients—fish, lime juice, chilies, ripe Hass avocado, and pico de gallo—add up to so much more when selected and prepared with great intent.
Whole shrimp, pan-roasted with lemons, intense chiles de arbol, garlic, and salty cotija cheese are similarly elegant in their simplicity. Half the flavor is on your fingers as you peel and nibble the shrimp, making for voluptuous, messy-good eating.
I question the thinking behind a dish such as grilled skirt steak—typically a humble, lean cut, but made here from big-ticket American Kobe beef. At $27, it’s the only beef option besides the carne asada tacos, and it makes the other six entrees—most less than $19—look like a bargain. The Caldo de 7 Mares is a rich, pungent seafood soup with the musky epazote herb, and lime. If meat is a must, chunky carnitas are deftly prepared and served solo beside tomatillo salsa and tortillas, or nestled inside a roast squash with mole verde thick with toasted, ground pumpkin seeds.
Desserts are advancing from their uncertain start. Two winners: a warm toffee cake with dates and butterscotch sauce, and the seductively simple nachos dulces. The latter is a bevy of crisp flour tortilla triangles, dusted with cinnamon sugar, drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauces, and topped with a profuse cloud of whipped cream sprinkled with crushed Ibarra chocolate and toasted almonds. It’s ideal for group sharing.
As I dream of being a party of one, all alone with that whimsical dessert, I bear in mind that a new restaurant isn’t an occasion, it’s a process. Sol Cocina shows that a little patience is an easy investment—one that pays substantial dividends.
Chipotle-piloncillo goat cheese, crudo of the day, ceviche, Taco Vampiro, peel-and-eat shrimp, nachos dulces, Partida tequila mojito.
Appetizers, $6 to $12; tacos, mariscos, $3.75 to $15; entrees, $17 to $29; desserts, $7.
Daily happy hour, 3 to 6 p.m.; selected appetizers, $3 to $6; discounts on some drinks.
Weekend brunch is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Deborah Schneider’s new book, “Amor y Tacos” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang).
251 E. Coast Highway
Photograph by Winnie Ma
Published March 2010