San Rafael’s Sol Food: Puerto Rican food done right
By the time this post is published, I will have packed up a 14-food U-haul, probably strained my lower back, and sweated up and down five flights of stairs (no mom, there’s no elevator) as I schlep my life’s belongings into a little apartment in Alamo Square Park. I’m unspeakably excited about moving from San Rafael to the city; truthfully, this was all supposed to happen a year ago. But you know how things don’t always go as planned. So as folks were busy making New Years resolutions and goals for the coming year ahead, I’ve been taking a moment to reflect on living in Marin and what I’ll miss.
Now there’s a big part of me that feels like this list is quite small. I’ll be honest: I haven’t been the most vocal member of Marin’s fan club. In fact, I never even joined. Socially, I’m generally the youngest one at any given location by a good twenty years. I’m not raising kids, and I’m in a pretty darn low tax bracket so that makes me the exception. And heck, I often like to eat dinner after 9 p.m. Suffice it to say, I’ve learned to eat earlier. Not only can you not get a decent burger after the sun sets, you can barely get a gallon of milk or sack of flour. The place shuts down. However, San Rafael has a lot going for it, too. I loved getting to know all of the hiking trails with my mom’s two dogs. West Marin is a quick, awesome getaway where life feels slower and somehow more conscious and deliberate. It’s generally easy to park in Marin, I love my consignment store, and can’t get enough of the Fairfax Scoop in the summers. And of course, you can get the best Puerto Rican food in the Bay Area. I’ll miss all of those things, especially the latter.
If you haven’t been to Sol Food, it’s owned by Sol Hernandez, an enterprising San Rafael native who decided to bring Puerto Rican food to Marin. She lived on the island for quite awhile with her boyfriend and his mother and spent her free time learning how to cook the local dishes. The original Sol Food is a tiny little outpost on the corner of 4th and Lincoln in San Rafael. There aren’t any formal indoor tables although there are stools by the window and up by the counter. When I first started hitting up the authentic eatery, I could just stroll in, order, and be on my way. Now I rarely go to this location because it’s always obscenely crowded, and I can usually find seating at the other location right away. Locals differentiate between the two in size, calling the original location on 4th Street “the small one” and the newer location on Lincoln Avenue “the big one.”
Regardless of which one you choose, Sol has successfully created two restaurant spaces that look and feel like Puerto Rico: colorful shutters and chairs, green plantains holding down stacks of napkins, and big leafy plants gracing every inch of usable counter space. Loud, lively music streams throughout the bustling cafe, and one of the things I love the most are the communal tables (at the larger location). Here, you may be seated next to a teacher grading papers, an older man reading the paper, gossipy college students, and tattoo artists from down the street. There aren’t a lot of places around Marin where young and old, conservative and raucous, come together and chat over pink beans and rice.
Two of Sol Food’s signatures: their infamous housemade hot sauce and decorative shuttered interior
Now, the food: Everything on the menu is delicious, from the Maduros (sweet fried yellow plantains) to the Bistec or Cubano sandwiches. I was a vegetarian for the first few years that I lived in San Rafael and I’d come to Sol Food often to get a side of beans. It’s the best deal in town, and still my go-to meal when I’m in a hurry or want a light lunch. For a mere $3.95, you get a generous portion of pink beans, half an avocado, and a plantain of your choosing. It’s delicious, it’s cheap, and it’s made with local and organic ingredients. Can’t beat that.
My favorite Sol Food dish, Pollo Al Horno
Today though, I generally rely on the Pollo Al Horno: boneless, skinless organic chicken thighs marinated with oregano and lots of garlic. It’s served with an organic salad, plantains, and rice and beans. If someone could teach me how to make chicken this juicy and flavorful, I’m not sure I’d eat anything else. Ever again. Their daily specials are something to organize your week around (check online for information). Mondays are my day of choice with the Arroz Con Picadillo, seasoned ground beef over rice served with beans, fresh avocado, fried plantain, and greens. Picadillo is a traditional dish in many Latin American countries and is often served with rice or used as a filling in tacos or empanadas. It sounds basic–kind of like you could whip it up at home. But you can’t. I assure you. The beef is spicy and has a kick of vinegar, garlic and onion. Head over on a Monday and you can see what I mean. Order a Fizzie Lizzie, their Cafe Helado (sweetened iced espresso with milk served in a mason jar), or a coconut water to wash it all down.
So while I can’t wait to live in a neighborhood where I can get a slice of pizza into the wee hours and where there will be more than two other people my age walking down the street (I’m kidding…sort of), I’m grateful that San Rafael’s just a skip away. My mom lives here, so I’ll come back to hike with her dogs, throw in load of laundry every now and then, catch up on Dexter, and get my fill of pink beans and rice.
Sol Food Restaurant (Small One/Original)
732 4th Street
San Rafael, CA 94901
Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 7am-12am; Fri. 7am-2am; Sat. 8am-2am
Sol Food Restaurant (Big One)
901 Lincoln Avenue
San Rafael, CA 94901
(415) 451-4765 (same number as above)
Hours: Daily from 11am-10pm