It's no secret that the lines at Sol Food in San Rafael have been creeping down the block lately. What used to be a little hole in the wall Puerto Rican joint is now a booming, booming business. But right across the street on Lincoln Avenue is a reason to ditch that long wait for some of the best Mexican food in the Bay Area.
Living in California, you forget that not everyone has good taquerias close to home, work, school, the freeway--you name it. When you talk to people living in, say, Seattle they'll tell you that really good authentic Mexican is tough to come by. So when my sister and her boyfriend were visiting (from Seattle) last weekend and mentioned a hankering for some legitimate mole, I know we had to go to Las Camelias.
Las Camelias is the baby of chef and owner, Gabriel Fregoso who grew up in the very small town of Cuautla in western Jalisco. His mother and grandmother were big cooks, and in 1976 Gabriel came to Marin and started working at the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur. He worked his way up to the position of cook, and a few years later opened Las Camelias using his mother and grandmother's recipes. In a county where restaurants open and shutter in the blink of an eye, thirty-two years in business is a pretty big deal. Gabriel's doing something right.
When you walk in, the first thing you'll notice is the warm, rustic atmosphere with heavy wooden chairs and tables and thoughtfully chosen artwork. The servers will set you up with a "margarita" right away (they don't have a liquor license so they're really wine margaritas). But they still make their own in-house margarita mix and it veers far from the often overly-sweet store bought variety. Try one. Trust me.
Then you must try the guacamole. I'm a bit finicky about guacamole. But at Las Camelias, they do a really simple version that has grabbed my attention: tons of avocado, a little chopped tomato, onion, and the perfect amount of cilantro and lime juice. No distracting spices. Not too salty or creamy.
Now to get down to business, I'm actually a little embarrassed to admit what I love to order at Las Camelias. It's a salad, possibly the lamest thing to order at a Mexican restaurant known for their spicy moles, incredible tamales, and slow cooked enchiladas. But this salad is a combination of many of my favorite things in the world: They start with lettuce and shredded organic chicken and throw in shredded cabbage and carrots, rice, cheese, guacamole, tortilla chips, and finish it off with a subtle sweet and sour dressing. It's pure magic, really and it's so filling that I generally bring leftovers home for lunch the next day.
Arroz Con Pollo Salad
My second favorite thing to order at Las Camelias are the Enchiladas Diablo Con Pollo. One reason I love ordering them is because the waitstaff sizes you up when you declare you'd like them. They try and measure your spice tenacity and have, on a few occasions, tried to talk me out of them. Are you sure? Very spicy, ok? And truthfully, they are certainly spicy but not unbearably so. There's a lot of layered flavors in the sauce and warm spices, but nothing that'll send you grabbing for your neighbors water glass. What I truly love about these enchiladas is how they're stuffed full of Rocky Junior chicken and spicy diablo sauce and little else. No big globs of cheese or unnecessary fillers. And Las Camelias serves most dishes with their famous white refried beans. I actually have friends that come here just for the beans.
Spicy steak fajitas: notice those white beans!
When I first started coming to Las Camelias I was a vegetarian and I was addicted to the Vegetarian Combination Platter. It comes with a huge poblano chile filled with caramelized onions and simmered in a light sour cream sauce with corn and zucchini. This is basically the perfect food on a foggy Bay Area evening. But wait. There's also the tamale with chayote and potatoes. And last, the crispy vegetarian burrito, all served with black beans and ancho chile sauce. It may be vegetarian, but it's very far from light--you get a little taste of many things they're known for and my meat-eating friends would always look on with envy.
So while Gabriel Fregoso is dealing with some tough competition across the street, I'm certain that Las Camelias is not going anywhere. The food is the real deal, the atmosphere is date-worthy while still maintaining a laid-back and comfortable vibe, and the waitstaff is gracious and attentive. Lately, visitors or no visitors, I can't get enough of the place.
My sister's boyfriend: soon to be a member of the clean-plate club
912 Lincoln Avenue (between 3rd and 4th)
San Rafael, CA 94901
Hours: M-Th 11:30am-9pm
Sun. 3 pm-9pm