Ever since avocado toast established itself as a permanent member of the American breakfast pantheon, eaters have been riveted by various avocado scandals. Allegations of price fixing in western Australia. Cartel-instigated violence in the fields of Michoacán.
But the seamier side of the avocado trade last month showed itself closer to home when the website L.A. Taco revealed that U.S. taqueria owners are sidestepping the exorbitant cost of avocados by leaving them out of their guacamole. The taqueros are instead blending calabacitas, or little green squash, with tomatillos and oil to create a green sauce that reliably snookers a palate primed by marinated meat and tortillas.
“I am totally serious,” an "All Things Considered" host said when she broke the bad news to National Public Radio listeners. Sprinting away from journalistic neutrality, she continued, “I don’t see how anyone can get away with this. ... I still think it’s sacrilege.”
Putting aside larger arguments about aesthetics and economics, let’s assume that outraged host speaks for the many avocado devotees who want to dip their chips without feeling cheated. How can they have their guacamole and faith in it, too?
For starters, they could dine at Sol Cocina Mexicana in Pawleys Island, a restaurant that doesn’t conceal its unwavering allegiance to fresh vegetables and fruit, avocado included.
Guacamole at Sol is made tableside, so patrons can examine the appetizer’s components before they’re spooned together, much as a magician might invite you to scrutinize a deck of cards before pulling the ace of spades from your right ear. And indeed, there is magic in bushy cilantro, hydrant-red tomatoes and ripe avocado more buttery than any mere squash.
The guacamole is something of an outlier on Sol’s menu, since it’s prepared without flourishes by one of the perky summer breakers who dominate the service staff. The vast majority of chef Armando Cobian’s dishes are the beneficiaries of scrupulously thought-out sauces he’s perfected over decades of professional cooking. At Sol, the only thing that’s deceptive is simplicity.
Still, the guacamole provides an excellent introduction to Cobian’s ingredient philosophy, which is as essential as his talent to making the eight-month-old Sol perhaps the finest Mexican restaurant along the South Carolina coast.
“Most of the other restaurants use canned tomatillos,” he says. “I do not.”
If Cobian had his way, he probably would have developed the dining room from scratch, too. But, like so many first-time restaurateurs, he was at the mercy of the real estate market. After leaving a job at Luna Bar Mexican Bar & Grill, he and his wife, Sol pastry chef Esmeralda Cobian, landed in the old Sam’s Corner on Ocean Highway.
“It was a hot dog place,” Cobian says sheepishly. “The goal was to have a smaller restaurant, but we’ve basically turned it into what we wanted it to be.”
So while Sol has telltale diner elements, such as a checkerboard tile floor and booths pressed up against the front window, it’s instantly recognizable as a Mexican restaurant. The mint green walls are hung with artwork featuring prickly pear cacti and stylized suns, and garlands of papel picado zigzag across the ceiling. Additionally, Cobian has eliminated most of the counter seating, allowing a former fry station to function as an open kitchen befitting a high-end restaurant.
Overall, though, the food is a few notches more refined than the casual space, which is more suitable for knocking back margaritas (made with fresh lime juice, of course) than musing on the 22 dazzling sauces that Cobian has devised.
In some instances, it’s surpassingly so. A few middlebrow conventions, such as the spring mix in the Caesar and curved white bowls used to contain cakes and ceviches that deserve flat plates, don’t pay off.
Yet, if those are the vestigial habits that come with the technique that Cobian acquired as a student at Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago, and as an employee of restaurants such as Frontera Grill and Michael Jordan Steak House, so be it. It’s impossible to dwell on minor flaws in the face of so much deliciousness.
Corn is a recurring theme at Sol. The Cobians make their own hearty tortillas from dry masa they rehydrate and cut chips from those still in the pantry when the last customer leaves. Because Sol’s customers tend to order chips and salsa reflexively, there are never enough homemade chips to fill all of the baskets, so they’re typically supplemented by the store-bought variety.
But if you dig around a bit, you sometimes excavate a sturdy, unbleached chip that’s the ideal support for the ur-sauce of Mexican cooking. Cobian’s tomato salsa is so intensely vegetal that I initially suspected its complex sweetness might involve carrots or bell peppers. In fact, he’s wringing a garden’s worth of flavors out of tomatoes and onions.
Tortillas are a constant at Sol, but the most thrilling expositions of corn are found at either end of a meal. To begin, there’s a silky corn-and-poblano soup thickened by its own kernels and subtly seasoned to activate corn receptors bound to remain alert straight through dessert. Then, a coarse-grained corn cake, drizzled with dulce de leche sauce that seeps into its oven-borne cracks, is a showstopper. Armando Cobian isn’t the family’s only saucier.
Sol serves tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas and, during the day, a masterful huevos motuleños showcasing Cobian’s smoky, simmered black beans. Sol’s rice gains its rich flavor, in part, from the homemade chicken stock that undergirds many of Cobian’s most impressive sauces, but the beans are officially vegetarian, deepened by dried chipotle chiles and time.
Even so, meat eaters are the lucky ones at Sol. Among the evidence is a serving of charred beef tenderloin tips, accompanied by tender plantain slices and Oaxacan white cheese snippets. Coaxed to the melting point by an engulfing fire-roasted tomato broth, the cheese supplies the salt that unifies the dish.
Omnivores are also blessed with Cobian’s expertly grilled lamb chops, presented as an inverted bouquet planted in black mole. Cobian estimates he spent six or seven years on the recipe for the resonant sauce, which promises more thrills per minute than most Grand Strand attractions.
It’s also available as a sauce for duck breast and pork chops, although you have to know to ask for it.
“It’s not on the menu,” Cobian says of the pork chops, “but it’s like when you eat chocolate and bacon at the same time. Oh my God, it’s so good.”
That's the kind of restaurant secret nobody minds learning.