Anatomy of a Dish: Pollo Al Horno at Sol Food in San Rafael, California
901 Lincoln Avenue, San Rafael CA 94901 (map); 415-256-8900
In all my travels across the U.S. and abroad, I've never found another restaurant like Sol Food. Granted, I've never been to Puerto Rico, but it's hard to imagine finding better Puerto Rican cuisine outside the home country than what this spunky little restaurant north of San Francisco turns out of its two kitchens (one for takeout, one for dine-in). I haven't lived in Marin County since 2004, but in the period since Sol Food opened the following year, I've probably eaten their pollo al horno more than any other dish at any other restaurant in the country.
So what exactly constitutes Puerto Rican food, and why aren't there more Puerto Rican restaurants? The Cuban embargo hasn't kept arroz con pollo and tortas from becoming recognizable fare, and reggae music narrowly beats jerk chicken as Jamaica's most beloved export.
But what distinguishes these from, say, Dominican, Haitian, and Bahamanian delicacies? Or, for that matter, the native cuisine of Barbados? Will they forever be lumped together under the catch-all "Caribbean"?
You'll have to ask an expert on that one, but when it comes to the menu at Sol Food, the characteristics of traditional California cuisine seem a more apt comparison than anything foreign. This translates to an emphasis on freshness, both in preparation and ingredients. The food comes out quick but the cooks constantly turn over new trays of plantains and bowls of salad. Plus the lettuce and eggs are organic, the chicken free-range, and the beef all-natural—and you can taste it.
Sol Food's quintessential dish, and my longtime favorite, is their combination pollo al horno (baked chicken), served with rice, beans, salad, and your choice of plantains.
The boneless, skinless chicken thighs are marinated with oregano and garlic before going into the oven, resulting in sections of soft muscle that slip apart at the lightest touch of a fork or finger. I recommend topping it with some house-made "tangy dipping sauce"—a mystery combo of vinegar, garlic, and pepper flakes—that you can also buy by the bottle (and you probably will).
Strangely though, it's the side dishes that make this combination truly outstanding. A small salad, made from organic mixed greens, is tossed with the most simple, exquisite lemon-garlic dressing (also available by the bottle). The restaurant won't give away the secret but I believe the x-factor is rice bran oil, which has a sweeter, more subdued taste than your typical olive oil. (I suspect the rice oil comes from the California Rice Oil Company in neighboring Novato, though this is still unconfirmed.)
On the other side of the plate you've got a layer of steamed white rice—it has the right amount of heft to its texture and sweetness to its taste, topped with vegan pink beans stewed with potatoes, Spanish olives, and herbs.
But the crowning achievement of this plate, and possibly of the whole menu, are the plátanos. You can opt for maduros (fried, sweet yellow plantains) but I've never found a better rendition of a starch than Sol Food's tostones con mojo. These green plantains—fried, smashed, then fried again and brushed with fresh garlic and olive oil—come out so wide and crunchy you can use them in place of bread on a sandwich (and they do, on the steak jíbaro). I almost always order an extra side of the tostones in addition to the two included with the combination.
If you live in Marin County, hopefully you're already eating at Sol Food on a regular basis. The seemingly simple preparations and egalitarian price points would lead you to think this is mere comfort food, but I implore every visitor to the Bay Area to include this restaurant on their itinerary. It's better than any burrito, and cheaper than Thomas Keller's table scraps.
About the author: Blessed with a fast metabolism and currently based in Austin, Texas, Citizen Taco eats everywhere and reports on the good stuff.