Authentic Mexican flavor with some twists sets SOL Cocina – Newport Beach apart from the fare served in most restaurants. What Executive Chef/Partner Deborah Schneider calls “the death hubcap of sludge” refers to the deep-fried, cheese-covered, red sauce-loaded dishes of tacos, burritos, fajitas and enchiladas served everywhere. “You never see it in Mexico. That’s not how they eat down there,” she said.
Chef describes her food at SOL Cocina – Newport Beach as Cabo or Sinaloan style. Although it’s become a cliché to label food freshly made, the aromas alone of the homemade tortillas is a journey to the land of corn. Her Baja-style street tacos are the biggest sellers on her menu.
This long time Mexican food enthusiast has published four books on the subject and will soon begin a fifth.
Petite in stature, author and teacher, was executive editor for a publishing house in Toronto. However, “I hate office work and love food,” she said about switching to cooking. She did six months of intense hands-on training at a Cordon Bleu school in Toronto. And, “I taught myself to cook through Julia (Child). One sweetbread recipe took me three days. I had to make stock, pastry shells and more. But the dish was incredible.”
Her first cooking jobs were on luxury yachts. “My boyfriend was a marine electrician,” Schneider recalled and he got her into cooking for owners and guests sailing around Europe where she explored France, Spain, Italy, Greece and North Africa between jobs on a BMW motorcycle. Before moving to San Diego, she stayed on the water as a yacht chef in Florida and the Caribbean.
San Diego, conveniently close to Mexico and Schneider’s work led her to travel extensively in Mexico where she discovered the food at street stands. Chef continues to visit Tijuana, just over the border, to shop and eat and the food at those stands up and down the coast of Baja became the inspiration for her books and the menu at SOL Cocina – Newport Beach.
Schneider cooked at several restaurants and hotels in and around San Diego including the La Jolla Torrey Pines Hilton where she became executive chef, the first female in the company to hold that position.
Being a female in a male-dominated industry has never bothered Schneider. Women in the kitchen are a common sight now but 30 years ago not so much. “People told me to get the hell out of the business,” Schneider remarked.
Her best advice to others? “Show up, suit up, shut up and do your best.”
Schneider credits her crew as inspiration for new dishes. “I’ve worked with Mexican men since 1985. They’re my best friends. When I make a salsa I take it to them and ask what they think.”
Recently returned from a two-week tour of Mexico sponsored by the Mexican government and led by Patricia Quintana, Schneider found more food to love. “The flavors are real inspiration for me. Going to Mexico is going to the mother lode, experiencing the way salsas are supposed to taste,” she said. “Once you understand how to use chiles, you can mess around with them.”
“They eat a lot of soups and stews, guisados. In the south they eat a ton of fruit, in the north a lot of meat,” Schneider explained.
She expects to see regional Mexican food grow in popularity. “Think about Italy 20 years ago. There was spaghetti and red sauce,” she said. Schneider mentioned the importance of corn and pork in Michoacan, moles from Oaxaca, pibil pork and achiote from Yucatan.
The James Beard Award-nominated author began writing for the Union Tribune, the San Diego daily 10 years ago. From there she moved to cookbooks, her first title ¡Baja! Cooking on the Edge was chosen by Food & Wine Magazine as one of the best books of 2006. In her most recent Amor y Tacos Schneider recreates street food tacos from Baja in new ways along with tequila-based cocktails and antojitos (appetizer-sized snacks).
Future plans? Another cookbook and another SOL Cocina – Newport Beach. “We’re looking in several locations for just the right place!”
See recipes for Chef Deborah's Panuchos and Chicken tacos.
SOL Cocina – Newport Beach
251 E. Pacific Coast Highway
Newport Beach, CA