When figuring out the concept for the new restaurant that would replace Café Eugene in Albany, Chris Laramie, the culinary director at 1100 Group, was shooting for the kind of Tex-Mex place that was a staple of his childhood.
The 1100 Group has become known for its restaurants with a family-friendly vibe, including Boss Burgers and Little Star Pizza. Café Eugene with its Oregon-inspired menu, missed the mark on that count, and after three years never quite found its footing. Hence, enter Cantina Del Sol.
The interior got a makeover, mainly in the form of a new paint job with brighter hues. Mexican serapes now hang on the walls.
And so far, business has already been proving that a family-friendly Mexican-American spot was exactly what was needed on Solano Avenue.
While Cactus Taqueria is up on the top of Solano and has been pleasing customers with its fast-casual food for years, Cantina is closer to San Pablo and has table service. It also has a liquor license.
“I didn’t know that I was missing a sit-down Mexican restaurant until you put one up,” Laramie said he heard a customer say recently, noting, “Obviously, that’s really nice to hear. Our customers are saying, ‘This is exactly what Albany needed.’”
Laramie said he had noticed that mediocre chains were taking over the mid-level Mexican restaurant sphere, and there was definitely space for something better in Albany.
“I grew up going to a family-friendly Mexican restaurant and that really doesn’t exist out here,” he said. “Most are taquerias or high-end Mexican. Over the past 20 or so years, we’ve seen chains suck up all those independent restaurants and they’ve become the weekly spot for a lot of people, but those can be junky with bad food and bad quality. It felt like there’s a hole for casual, sit-down Mexican places.”
Striking that balance where picky kids can find what to eat and their parents can enjoy not only the food but a good, stiff drink if they so desire is the sweet spot for Albany, he said. Toys are available on offer, too.
“When Mom and Dad can enjoy their food and get a drink and the kids have stuff they’re into too, that’s good for everybody,” said Laramie.
There were several important pillars to the sit-down, family-friendly Mexican restaurant, said Laramie, the first being a strong, cheap margarita that tastes good.
About that margarita, Laramie says its offered three ways: on the rocks with salt, frozen or straight up (with on the rocks being most popular). While Cantina Del Sol’s margarita is a pretty traditional one with agave, Triple Sec, tequila and lime juice, he said there is one secret ingredient that he won’t divulge. “We’re trying to have it be balanced but also very strong. And by offering a 10-ounce margarita for $9, that’s something people can come back for over and over again.”
They’ve also brought back the frozen margarita (made in a machine), which Laramie admits is a bit kitschy but hopes it will be more popular when the weather changes. “Yes, it’s kitschy and old school and fun,” he said. “It’s also not easy to balance with the freezing temperature and alcohol content; a perfectly frozen margarita is hard to find.”
They also have a large tequila selection and more than a few mezcals — tequila’s smokier cousin — on offer, but no cocktails made with mezcal just yet (but stay tuned).
Another requirement that had to be hit was having chips and salsa on the table when guests are seated (And for us, the chips were warm; always a nice touch.).
Laramie described the menu as being more along the lines of what you’d find in a Southern California Mexican spot. For example, the chimichanga, or deep-fried burrito is something that is often found on Southern California menus. There are also other American favorites like nachos, a taco salad and a burrito that must be eaten with a knife and fork.
There are fajitas and combination plates with rice and beans, but also a few unique dishes, like the chef’s favorite, “El Macho,” which pairs marinated skirt steak with a cheese enchilada with red sauce. “That combination is magical and so much fun,” said Laramie.
We tried the “Agua & Tierra,” or surf and turf, which included a skirt steak, jumbo shrimp and rice and beans. The steak and shrimp were cooked and seasoned well. We also ordered a taco plate, with zucchini, corn, poblano and potato filling, which we enjoyed, even though the consistency of the vegetables made the taco fall apart, a bit.
On weekends, there’s a brunch menu. Laramie especially recommends the “Cantina Benedict,” in which Hatch green chile powder is added to the hollandaise sauce, sopes (masa cakes) replace the English muffins and carnitas replaces the ham. There is also the more typical huevos rancheros, chilaquiles and chorizo hash.
Cantina Del Sol chef Luis Rodriguez spent the last eight years at Picante. Together, he and Laramie developed the menu. As for ingredients — the beef comes from Niman Ranch, and the chicken from Mary’s, and the tortillas are sourced from Oakland’s La Finca Tortilleria; they’re often delivered still warm. The average dish is around $14, said Laramie, adding that the restaurant uses as much local (but not organic) produce as possible.
“This is really me creating my childhood Mexican restaurant, the one I had birthdays at and went to with my parents,” said Laramie. “It was easy and cheap and fun and filling.”
This food won’t blow anyone away but as much as Mexican-American food has become a staple comfort food for a lot of Californians, it seems that Cantina Del Sol is already finding its audience in family-friendly Albany.