By Heather Irwin
Editor’s note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. We invite you to come along with our writers as they–informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves–have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.
‘Are you in line? I hear this place is really good,” says a woman squeezing inside the door next to me. The room is already packed with people waiting, like me, for food. The air is humid with our breath and the garlicky steam of food coming from the kitchen, and frankly I’m starting to feel a little claustrophobic. My name is finally called.
“He-dar! He-dar!” Close enough. I grab the warm brown bag filled with my order of garlic-roasted chicken and make for the door. Two steps and I’m outside in the fresh air, where a few tiny tables are scattered about the parking lot; most of the displaced Sol Food diners simply perch themselves on nearby curbs.
But before I even start in on the fragrant pollo in my bag, I’m stopped short by the sight of a steak sandwich with drippy cheese oozing out the back, spicy sauce, onions and avocado. Damn! That’s too good to pass up. Without a second thought, I squeeze back in line to order, the walls already closing in. Behind me, another couple walks up. “Are you in line?”
Sol Food is quite possibly the world’s tiniest restaurant. There are just a few seats against an inside wall, a large tin tub filled with ice and cold drinks, and a woman behind the counter who alternately yells orders back to the kitchen and takes yours. With lime-green trim and exotic plants everywhere, it’s all quite charming and simple if you aren’t in a hurry and don’t mind a few hot-sauce stains on your shirt as you hunker down at a makeshift table. The food is home-style Puerto Rican, with chicken, rice, steak, beans, plantains and hot sauce being the primary food groups here.
Ordering is done off the chalkboards overhead. My first purchase, the pollo al horno ($8.95), is three pieces of boneless chicken slathered with oregano and lots and lots–I mean, lots–of garlic. The lunch plate comes with mofongo, fried green plantains mashed up with, again, lots of garlic before being refried nice and crispy, as well as rice and beans. The chicken is moist and flavorful, with mostly dark, savory meat.
But the steak sandwich ($7.10) I returned for is worth every moment of being squeezed, jostled and jockeyed around inside this lunchtime hot spot. It’s a huge handful of a meal that comes steaming hot and grilled with strips of steak and caramelized onions, mayonnaise sauce, cheese and hunks of avocado on a toasty homemade roll. Salads, too often overlooked at small eateries like this, are treated with care; bunches of organic greens are tossed with an insanely good garlic vinaigrette that refreshes and cools down the heat of the homemade hot sauce. Vegans and vegetarians are welcome here, with several rice and vegetable offerings on the chalkboard.
Seats at Sol Food are hard to come by, especially at lunchtime, so takeout is usually your best bet. Grab a curb in the shade and look like you’ve known about this little Latin gem for, oh, years.
Sol Food, 732 Fourth St., San Rafael. Open Sunday-Thursday 11:30am to 9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am to 10pm. 415.451.4765.
From the August 3-9, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.