Sol food

Keeping it clean on the north side

The So Cal burrito with carne asada and french fries.

The So Cal burrito with carne asada and french fries.

Photo courtesy of Sol

Sol Mexican Grill
3269 Esplanade
Open daily, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Sol, the Mexican restaurant on the north side of town, exists in a sweet spot between authentic taquerias and grand, sit-down productions like Tres Hombres. If you want a street taco without fuss and an atmosphere upgrade from Formica table tops, but you aren’t in the mood for a margarita the size of a soup bowl, this might be the place for you.

Though Sol Mexican Grill has won the Best Mexican Restaurant award in the Best of Chico voters’ poll three years running, it’s Mexican in a Californian, Americanized way. There’s no manteca (lard) in the kitchen, no sopes on the menu. The salsas are family-friendly. Elton John’s “Your Song” is on the Musak (and yet I stood my ground and didn’t bolt—is there a Purple Heart for restaurant reviewers?). There are free copies of the Wall Street Journal. So, don’t come here to relive your vacation in Loreto.

Sol’s menu is weighted toward So Cal street food: street tacos, fish tacos, french fries, a So Cal burrito with french fries inside. Some things work very well. There’s a very nice Sol Bowl salad with a great cilantro ranch dressing. I think their french fry is the best in town, Burgers and Brew not withstanding. The corn tortillas are shipped in from a secret location three times a week, and it’s worth it. But in the main, I don’t find the food exciting.

The selling points of Sol are quality and health. The Sol proprietor, Geoff Akers, is justly proud of his efforts to keep you well and save you from Burrito Belly. Sol uses only rice bran oil—over twice the price of canola or soybean oil—because it’s more digestible. Most of the menu is gluten-free, including the fish breading, and vegetarianism is taken seriously—there are tofu items, for instance. All the salsas are made from scratch, and they make their chips in house. And the prices, especially given the quality and large portions, are very reasonable—plates (which include rice and beans) run $6.75-$8.25.

Choose among three places to eat: the patio, which is small and pleasant; the main indoor dining area, which is small, usually bustling, with ceiling beams and warm, red and gold and green walls; or the Cantina, the larger space across the walkway from Sol’s front door.

There are a number of sweet little touches that show caring and class. There’s a salsa bar, with limes, pickled veggies and a simple green salsa that’s mild enough that it doesn’t obliterate the taste of the food, which is a rarity. There are lids for the cups at the salsa bar, so you can take salsa home. There is a small but thoughtful assortment of bottled and canned drinks, including a Mexican beer called Victoria I’d never seen before but which Akers says is wonderful. There’s also a soda machine, and it’s self-operated, which means (cue the heavenly host) free refills.

There are also things I’d change. The fish comes only deep fried—I’d prefer grilled. The cheese is a mix of cheddar and jack, the hallmark of ersatz Mexican—a little cotija or something similar would work wonders. Chips and salsa aren’t free—they’re only a buck, but it’s the principle of the thing.

Sol is a little out of the way, at the intersection of Highway 99 and Eaton Road, so it’s perfect for a meal on your way to the Chico Theater Company. Its distance from the city center means that parking is free and plentiful, always. Some nights, that’s all that matters.