Chef Tia Baker explores endless possibilities of flavor at Sol Cocina
By Christina Campodonico
Call it tortilla tourism.
The way Sol Cocina Head Chef Tia Baker sees it, each specialty taco on the upscale Playa Vista restaurant’s menu is a unique culinary destination.
“Each taco has a different style,” Baker says as we sit for a tasting on Sol Cocina’s covered outdoor patio during a recent sunny afternoon. “I think of them almost as regions.”
The Viper Taco ($6.50) — its grilled chicken, avocado, onion and melted cheese spiked with a spicy ghost chile chipotle salsa — draws on mole influences from Oaxaca.
The Taco Bufalada ($8.50), on the other hand, has more of a “ranchero style,” says Baker. Filled with almost every variety of protein — chicken, pork and beef cut up in into tender little morsels — and garnished with a fat smear of guacamole, thick-cut jalapenos and a crown of pickled radishes, its generous portions makes for a hearty meal. This is the gourmet version of the kind of taco you would want after working on the farm all day.
Baker describes the “El Jefe” ($12.50), a succulent pairing of grilled angus fillet with two sweet, avocado-topped agave-chile grilled shrimp, as “TJ” or Tijuana style because it combines surf and turf.
Still others fuse American dishes with Mexican flavors. Baker likens her favorite, the Short Rib Taco ($10.50), to an All-American pot roast, but with a tortilla and healthy dollop of sour cream on top.
“The Short Rib Taco is kind of like that memory of a pot roast. It’s braised off and it’s cooked for four or five hours in the oven. It comes out and everything is pulled apart. It’s already in its own au jus, and the chile and everything it’s already cooked in has its own broth.”
Some of the tacos are in a league of their own. The “Canarditas” Duck ($12.75) features a deep-fried duck leg. The Garlic Ribeye Steak Taco ($10.75), true to its name, plunks a miniaturized steak smothered in chimichurri sauce right into the middle of a tortilla. Forget eating this one by hand; you’re given a steak knife to carve through the beef’s mouthwatering tenderness.
Vegetarians can enjoy the Spice-Roasted Butternut Squash Taco ($6.50), which has quite a kick, or the milder and garlicky Poblano, Mushroom & Corn Taco ($5.00), or the Sweet Potato & Black Bean Taco with roasted poblano and grilled onions ($5.75).
The Beer-Battered Shrimp Taco ($6.00), the sweet Grilled Agave-Chile Shrimp Taco ($11.00), the spicy Shrimp Taco Dorado ($7.00) and the hefty Ensenada Fish Taco (two for $12.50) each take a cue from the Baja coast, where Sol Cocina Executive Chef Deborah Schneider fell in love with the area’s surf, sand and street tacos.
Partnering up with fellow Baja enthusiasts Rich Howland and Matt Baumayr, Schneider brought the fresh seafood flavors she sampled on the Mexican coast to Newport Beach, where Sol Cocina opened its first restaurant in 2009 before expanding to Scottsdale, Az., in 2012.
Trained by Schneider, Baker continues the emphasis on fresh Mexican cuisine at Sol Cocina’s Runway at Playa Vista location, which opened in January, by giving special care to an essential but often overlooked ingredient — the tortillas.
“A tortilla is to a taco as bread is to a sandwich. It makes all the difference … that’s your platform, that’s your vehicle for all your food,” says Baker, who explains that maintaining the tortillas’ moisture and temperature is crucial. Tortillas are delivered four times a week on the same day that they are made, refrigerated and sealed tight to maintain peak freshness, she says.
The humble tortilla truly shines in the Taco Vampiro ($8.50), a popular menu item that fuses two tortillas together with melted jack cheese, butter and serrano chile beneath a bed of juicy chopped up carne asada and creamy chipotle sauce. The tortillas are soft, yet magically crispy all at once; the distinction between hard and soft taco is blurred.
Such unexpected combinations give Baker, who learned to cook from her stepfather’s El Paso and Mexico City-based family, joy in the kitchen.
“A lot of people just lump Mexican food into to a stereotype,” she says. “There’s so much more flavor.”
Sol Cocina is at 12775 Millennium Drive. Call (424) 289-0066 or visit solcocina.com.