sol cocina

pomegranate guacamole

One of the things I love most about Southern California is how I’m able to indulge in my fetish for Mexican food. Proximity to the border combined with an abundant Latino population make this part of the country one of the best areas outside of Mexico to go in search of regional flavors. More surprising is when you happen to stumble upon a place that’s creatively marrying authentic ingredients with the ethos of California cuisine. Chef Deborah Schneider’s Sol Cocina is such a place. Simple, quick and fresh are the bywords of Baja-style cooking and Sol, with an open kitchen and counter seating not unlike a Baja taco bar, embraces the peculiarities of that peninsula with a winning menu heavily dependent on seasonal ingredients. Like pomegranate seeds, which pepper a guacamole already studded with walnuts and crumbled queso fresco. And white corn, blended with spicy roasted poblanos into a velvety puree with crema and pepitas. (Applause, too, for the brilliant idea of offering a substantial ‘taste’ at the bargain price of $2.50)  There’s only one word that can accurately encapsulate the sweet corn on the cob, grilled with butter, lime, chiles and drizzled with chipotle and cotixa cheese and that’s “sick,” as in I would be happy to eat this in such reckless quantities that I ultimately make myself sick. Tacos have their own surprises: the Vampiro is a double tortilla stuffed with melted cheese and serrano chile, topped with locally sourced carne asada, pico de gallo and cotixa; wild-caught fish is pan-roasted with lemon and garlic in the Gobernador, a refreshing change of pace from your bog standard Ensenda-style deep fry. I should have planned better in preparation for this meal; there are too many temptations on the menu:  shortribs braised with guajillos, green pozole, pork pibil roasted in banana leaves, and a mammoth grilled burrito that looks like a panini on steroids as it passes me by en route to some lucky table. Then again, such seduction is all part of the fun of eating here in SoCal: otro hermoso día, otra comida magnífica.

white corn & pobano soup

grilled sweet corn

taco vampiro & fish taco

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red hooked on food trucks

Contrary to what I had always been led to believe, Brooklyn’s celebrated Red Hook food trucks are not Mexican but a veritable Pan-American exposition of south-of-the-border flavors – with particular attention heaped upon the cuisines of Central America. I trekked out to the soccer fields where the trucks set up shop each weekend – just south of a huge tract of public housing and west of the bend in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as it meets the Gowanus Canal – in search of the authentic huaraches, sopes, and tamales that occasionally haunt my daydreams only to discover ceviche, a crazy-delicious take on traditional horchata, and something called pupusa. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. At the easternmost stall on Bay Street, the mixto ceviche comes Ecuadoran-style, in a sweet and sour stew brimming with lime, red onion, cilantro and a substantial quantity of shrimp, squid, octopus, and fish that belie the thrifty $9 price tag. Add a few spoonfuls of the fiery green hot sauce and you’ll want to finish by drinking down every lick of the remaining broth. An icy horchata is the perfect complement to all that sweet and sour fire. However, unlike the traditional rice and water variety I’ve encountered, the Honduran version offered here incorporates milk, cinnamon, and peanuts to bring a whole other dimension of savory and salt flavors to the forefront. Round one over, I head to the line forming for pupusa, a traditional grilled corn cake from El Salvador that traces its roots back to the Maya. Resembling a tortilla, it can be stuffed with a variety of meats, cheese, or vegetables. I opted for cheese and loroco – a traditional flower bud heretofore alien to me – and watched as the pupusera shaped the dough and stuffed it to order. Accompanied by pickled coleslaw, tomato salsa, and onions, the loroco had a complex taste similar to the flavor of sea beans. I could have easily gobbled another. One thing was certain: this was no street fair arepa, thank you very much. Sated, stuffed, I nevertheless pined to continue eating my way across the continent. Yet for once I practiced a smidgen of self-control, opting for a fresh mango dusted with lime and chili, those twin ingredients which so often elevate Latin food to a sublime place worthy of the occasional gustatory daydream.

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all up in jimmy carter’s grill

San Diego has its share of fine dining establishments, as well as what’s suddenly become an almost ubiquitous culinary trend of contemporary American riffs on locally sourced foods – not to mention the previously documented hippie vegan fare I’ve lately grown so fond of, too. Yet with the Mexican border a scant fifteen miles away, the true star of this city’s dining scene is its geography. And as longtime readers of this blog know, nothing quite gets my juices flowing like south of the border cuisine. Moreover, you can dismiss all thoughts of those half-baked Cal-Mex-Tex-Mex bastardizations – in San Diego it’s easy to find the real deal. Up in Hillcrest with friends, we stumbled into the unassuming Jimmy Carter’s. When chips promptly arrived with a trio of salsa, salsa verde, and zanahoria, the addictive chunks of pickled carrot, cured with cumin and cloves, I knew we were in good hands. Score another notch for the simply prepared tilapia tacos (perhaps the worlds most perfect food, to my mind) and the all too infrequently seen sincronizado, Mexico’s flour tortilla answer to a grilled ham and cheese. I must have been delirious from all the zanahoria because somehow I neglected to partake of the homemade chorizo.  That alone warrants a return, I reckon.

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