Sunny on the north side
Sol Mexican Grill passes the San Diego test
Chico, CA 95973
When I moved to Chico from San Diego two years ago, one of my biggest concerns was a lack of quality Mexican food. My bias is bred from a decade of living in a city fueled entirely by it. It’s not just the general high quality, but a distinct regional flavor and overwhelming pervasiveness that make it such a part of everyday life.
Never fear, I was assured by friends who lived or had lived in Chico, each with his or her own recommendations of which taco truck to hit on which day to order this when that cook is working, and if he’s not then don’t bother and try this shop but only get this sauce with these tortillas. I followed directions precisely to little avail, finding only a handful of places I’d bother—and even fewer I’d look forward to—revisiting.
Last week I was exposed to an excellent choice: Sol Mexican Grill. I say “exposed” because it was recommended, and had I stumbled across it myself I might’ve kept on stumbling. You see, in my old ’hood, the best taco shops tend to be earthy places where businessmen cram into greasy booths across from vagrants, and come 2 a.m. the banda music is bumping and the place is packed. Sol, by contrast, is located in a nice, stone-faced commercial building on The Esplanade north of Eaton Road. The new and sparkling-clean casual restaurant has been around for just five months; opened in mid-April by a couple of experienced local restaurateurs—Jon Meyer (co-owner of La Cocina Economica and former owner of Jedidiah’s) and Geoffrey Akers (a former GM for both the Black Crow and Chipotle, and once the personal chef for actor Michael Douglas).
What Sol lacks in earthiness it makes up for in flavor. I was excited to see the So Cal Burrito ($6.25), something rarely seen outside of the 619 where it’s simply called a California burrito. What constitutes a California is carne asada and french fries, which, incongruous as they may sound, fit together like chocolate and peanut butter. The So Cal is garnished with cheese, onions, cilantro, sour cream, guacamole and salsa, and it scratched an itch inside me long in need of relief.
My complaint with most of Chico’s burritos is they tend to be big puddles of goo precariously bound together in soggy tortillas.
Slice open a So Cal here and you’ll see homemade fries, large, crispy pieces of delectable carne asada and all its other constituent parts. They only blend where they should here, on the palate and in the belly.
Though rice and beans are often overlooked by less discerning diners, connoisseurs know they are the true barometer of an establishment’s aptitude. Sol’s are good, and the refried beans on my chile relleno plate ($6.75) were the way I prefer them, richly flavorful with a meaty texture. My relleno was also exceptional, the batter light, sauce fresh and melted cheese bursting from a perfectly evenly cooked—not too soggy, not too al dente—pasilla pepper.
The original recommendation was to try the carnitas, so on a second visit I ordered my pork street-taco style ($1.25 each, includes cheese and the usual, extra for guac and sour cream) and it’s quite delicious, my only complaint being it lacked the crispy, caramelized edges integral to really, really good carnitas. So they’re pretty good carnitas, still a rarity in town and certainly nothing I’d pass up.
There’s plenty more to explore on Sol’s menu, and I’ve heard good things about the tortas ($5.50) and the tostada salad ($5.75). Flour or corn tortillas are available for most meals, and entrees can be ordered as a plate with rice and beans or a la carte. Of special note are the inviting outdoor patio and the low prices. Despite it being a sit-down place, nothing on the regular menu is more than $7, and most items provide a filling meal. Even though they don’t bring free chips to the table ($1 for a small bowl, and a trip to the salsa bar), I’ll definitely be back regularly to approximate a delightfully suitable fix until the next time I can make it down south to America’s Finest City.