When the team behind SOL Mexican Cocina in Newport Beach and Scottsdale first set out to open its sister restaurant in Huntington Beach, their inspiration was "to build a new neighborhood Mexican restaurant," says HB-based partner Matt Baumayr. The initial design was simple: taco cart meets divey eatery. The end result, however, took the concept and ran to Mexico and Baja California with it, pulling elements from the land and people and crafting them into what is now one of HB's most unique and beautiful places to dine and drink.
Occupying a 3,800-square-foot interior space at Bella Terra, Solita Tacos & Margaritas will open its grand worm wood doors to HB on Thursday, December 26. While locals may have an overwhelming amount of Christmas dinner leftovers to fork through, we advise a rest from mashed potatoes and stuffing and a taste of Solita.
Sourcing only fresh, local and sustainable food, the restaurant serves up traditional coastal Mexican fare with a modern, sophisticated twist, infusing tropical tastes and serving sating sides. At the helm of the open kitchen stands Executive Chef and partner Deborah Schneider, the author of five cookbooks and culinary mind behind SOL. With a mission to keep the menu simple, affordable and just as delicious as SOL, the San Diego-based chef incorporates tastes from her journeys in Baja California and Mexico. She also plucks ideas from dishes her Mexican-born and raised friends and co-workers ate while growing up.
Produce is delivered daily to Solita by L.A. Specialty, and diners will never find a fish caught in a net on their plates. Partner Rich Howland of San Clemente says Solita sources from about 50 different vendors to keep menu items as fresh, sustainable, high quality, local and affordable as possible. Aside from the market price wood-grilled wild fish and watermelon margarita pitcher, nothing on the menu exceeds $21.
The heartbeat of Solita is its open, oak-fired Santa Maria-style wood grill and smoker, which gives dishes a "smoky edge," says Schneider, noting that the well-balanced flavor profile at Solita is distinctly different from that of SOL. All proteins are cooked on the wood grill.
A few of the "antojitos," or appetizers, we sampled and loved include the rich queso al forno (bubbling Mexican cheeses, green onions and serrano chiles served in an iron cazuela with corn and flour tortillas); guacamole solita (fresh housemade guacamole served in a fried tortilla bowl, topped with diced mango, tomato, onion, serrano chiles and cilantro); sweet potato fries (served in a paper cone with cotixa cheese and chipotle dipping sauce); grilled corn elote (whole ear of sweet corn roasted and grilled with butter, chipotle salsa, california chiles, cotixa and green onions); copa de frutas (cucumber, jicama, seasonal fruit, lime and chile con limon); and the mother of them all: the tequila shrimp and avocado sundae (lightly cooked shrimp with blanco tequila, salsa fresca, lime juice and chipotles layered with Marta's creamy avocado sauce in a sundae glass). Simply admire, stir and savor.
Of course, Solita wouldn't hold true to its name if tacos weren't featured prominently on the menu. Three's not a crowd when it comes to Solita's 13 taco plates, which feature chorizo, bacon and sweet potatoes; wood-grilled ancho chile chicken; crispy fried fish taco; and the "chile tofu." Other menu items include burritos, quesadillas, salads, homestyle soups, eight specialty plates and taco tasters for those who can't choose just one of the 13 taco plates.
All salsas—including the deliciously smoky chipotle salsa and spicy evil green hot sauce—are made fresh in-house and are accompanied by one of our favorite Solita eats: crispy, salty durros. All sides are also vegetarian and wheat-free. That's right, veggies. The Yucatecan-style refried beans are not cooked in lard. Sides can also be made vegan simply by omitting cheese. The Solita slaw with creamy lemon cilantro dressing packs a welcomed crunch and pairs well with any menu choice.
Behind the bar stands San Clemente-based Beverage Director Colin Pflugradt, who has honed his mixologist skills over the past few years while working with the SOL family. From Scottsdale to Newport Beach to HB, he pours a mean fruit-based, agave-sweetened margarita in several flavors, both over ice and frozen with a chili salt rim. The secret to Solita's acclaimed margs isn't just in Pflugradt's shake, it also lies in the fresh, simple base ingredients: water, sugar and fresh lime and lemon juice. Combine the four with one of the many 100 percent blue agave tequilas and fresh fruit, and you've got yourself a refreshing 14-ounce margarita boasting 2.5 ounces of tequila. The house marg, complete with a hint of orange, costs $8, and specialty drink prices rise from there.
While sweets bring up the menu's rear, perhaps the best option for an after-dinner treat is Pflugradt's horchata cocktail. Having experimented with the drink for some time, the cocktail guru feels confident he got it right for Solita. We concur. A housemade horchata poured over ice comes mixed with Agavales Tequila Blanco and 1921 Crema de Tequila, and is sprinkled with cinnamon. The sipping concoction is not too sweet, and you can barely taste the booze.
Solita has prepared for a bustling takeout business, but patrons may opt to sit down and stay awhile once they take in the warm, polished decor and furniture—all imagined by renowned interior designer Janet Henrich and handmade in Mexico. "What was fun about Janet was the fact that she wanted to travel down to Mexico to see what it was that we were trying to bring back stateside," says Howland. Her travels took her to places like Baja California, Tonalá, Tlaquepaque, Mexico City and Guadalajara.
Schneider said of the initial decor and menu concepts for Solita, "We were going to do a small, inexpensive, kind of hole-in-the-wall taco place," adding, "We did a lousy job of this." Visions of taco carts and divey joints evolved into an open, 80-seat dining area with high, dark ceilings and chandeliers hanging overhead, as well as a 70-seat fully enclosed outdoor patio. The works of art overlooking the bar area represent agave presses, while those hanging above the main dining area are reminiscent of the large stones once used to crush agave fiber. Speaking of agave, the luminescent citrus wall behind the bar features silhouettes of the edible plants. Another creative design element inside Solita is the back wall, which was inspired by a brick wall the crew saw in Guadalajara. The 1,500-square-foot patio is another nice touch to its "vacation-esque" feel, according to Howland, as well as a nod to Southern California's affinity for outdoor dining.
Opening the day after Christmas, Solita will serve dinner during its first week, then add lunch service the following week. Happy hour, brunch, Taco Tuesday and other additions are in the works. Restaurant staffers have endured a three-week training program and cannot wait to serve HB.