Caribbean Cuisine: San Rafael's Sol Food
Puerto Rican food isn't well represented on the West Coast—its practitioners have traditionally settled in New York, Boston and other northeastern locations, not here—but a fragrant and friendly purveyor of this lusty Caribbean cuisine operates two venues in the pan-Latin melting pot of downtown San Rafael.
Sol Food (732 Fourth St. and 901 Lincoln Ave., 451-4765) isn't a high-concept, low-quality novelty. Housed in cheerful West Indies settings of peeling pastels, weathered ironwork, mambo music and enormous potted foliage—it's like entering a Caribbean courtyard—the two outlets serve absolutely creditable examples of the island's Afro-Hispanic comidas criollas (home cooking).
This isn't to say that the food is entirely authentic; the island's predeliction for the deep fryer has been tempered by Northern California's target demographic, and salt cod and pork innards aren't part of the program. But sink your teeth into the free-range
chicken thighs reeking of garlic and oregano, the creamy, soul-satisfying pink beans and rice, the crisp, hot fried plantains glistening with olive oil, and quibbling becomes absolutely...norte. The tembleque—coconut pudding with mango sauce—is unbelievably light, creamy and comforting, like an earthier, more elemental panna cotta, and is one of the best sweets you'll find. —Matthew Stafford