It’s not everyday you get a Food Network winner from “Cutthroat Kitchen” to deliver you tacos right to your picnic table, but that’s what happens daily at Cholo Soy Cocina restaurant, the hot new eatery on The Corridor.
I popped into Cholo Soy Cocina recently at 2 p.m. – a half hour before their 2:30 lunch closing time – and the place was still packed. But the service is so quick, my delicious Pollo tacos were hand delivered by Chef Carnes before I had even finished paying. The register transaction took a bit longer as I also ordered Chifles Cerveceros – Spiced Plantain Chips – but they were out of them already as they are wildly popular and I was left wanting at the end of the lunch rush. Note to self, next time get there earlier.
But about those tacos – made with chicken stir fried with achote sofrito – a condiment made from annatto seeds which is like a small lentil, irregularly spherical and bumpy, dark red in color and when heated with oil turns a beautiful and fragrant orangey-red. The word “sofrito” derives from the Catalan verb “sofrefir” — to fry lightly. A sofrito is generally understood as a combination of herbs and aromatic vegetables (and sometimes spices) lightly sauteed in oil. There was also a purple cabbage slaw, smoked chile cream, cilantro and slices of lime to squeeze over the tacos.
Another layer of wonder is the tacos themselves – handmade from scratch of organic, non-GMO white corn that’s grown in Alachua County. These were the tastiest little tacos I’ve had in ages, with every ingredient adding another rich layer of flavor.
“We’re going to be grinding the masa for our tortillas,” Carnes said. “We’ll have handmade, freshly ground masa that we’ll be making twice a day.”
You can see the corn grinder right inside the front window, and then watch as the chefs shape and cook them on the spot. A shot of hot sauce completed the meal and a tangy San Pellegrino Limonada washed it all down.
There are just a few tables in the front of Cholo Soy Cocina restaurant but the real treat is the colorful patio in the back with bright yellow picnic style tables, an herb garden sprouting peppers, tomatoes, onions and herbs. Strings of lights overhead brighten up the space at night. The best part are some slyly humorous murals of the Virgin Mary getting her holy skirt blown up and a cartoon mouse in a sombrero holding up a giant taco asking patrons to “share a table if they are able.” Sure Senor Rat, anything you squeak, uh, say.
The name of the restaurant translates to “I am cholo”, a Latin American slang term for mixed race or “mestizo”. Carnes, who spent the last six years as executive chef at The Grille Fashion Cuisine in Wellington Sunday – where he served over 200 diners at once – says the plan is a honed selection of fresh tacos, Andean-inspired street foods, and dishes that reflect regionally grown ingredients.
His Latin influence comes legitimately, as Ecuador is where Carnes worked as executive chef at the Mansion Alcazar boutique hotel in the city of Cuenca after he worked as chef de cuisine at Cucina Dell’Arte in Palm Beach. Ecuador is the birthplace of his wife, Maria, and their older son. The Cholo Soy Cocina restaurant location once housed Jacki Mallick’s interior design shop, and is just 600 square feet with 12 seats inside, but room for about 15 or 20 more out back.
“This concept is short and sweet – and a line out the door,” he says.
But space is not everything. Carnes felt that cooking American food after coming back from the exotic spices and everything from scratch mentality was just not in his heart. He had seen the phrase Soy Cholo on a wall in a Peruvian restaurant, and felt it was perfect for how he wanted his new place and cuisine to be.
Back to the menu – the selection of tacos includes the Chancho – pork with pickled pineapple peppers and cabbage; Pork Belly made with pickled papaya; and Steak topped with pickled scallion and chimichurri mayo. There is also a fish taco and vegetarian choice “Off the farm and chef inspired.”
Little side plates add to the fiesta – Yuca fries with sauce; a farm egg scrambled with hominy grits; grilled ear of corn topped with lime, salsa cholo and cheese; plus a sweet corn salad. There is also a chef select Ceviche and a Quesadilla made from whatever the ship – or truck – brings in that day. There is a healthy drink selection with juices, Mexican Coca Cola, beer and five types of wine including a Malbec and a Torrontes.
Judging from the crowd, rave online reviews and happy little vibe Cholo Soy has going, the place is a hit. Most other eateries on the “Cultural Corridor” as the new strip with Antique shops, galleries like The Box and restaurants like Grato, are creating a new energetic vibe here. Anticipating the renovated Norton Museum, the new Carefree Theater complex opening in a few years, and the new food market/sports warehouse area called The District below Okeechobee, the place is ripe for a well-mixed revival.
If you visit:
Cholo Soy Cocina restaurant, 3715 South Dixie Hwy, WPB. 561-619-7018. Menu and more information about the restaurant here: www.cholosoycocina.com