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Area's 'Best Chef' Opens Alfredo Garcias

Chef Rafael Solórzano and his two partners, David Letchworth and Brian Cull, create a new experience in Mexican dining in the South Bay.

Alfredo Garcias Restaurant may have opened its doors in Palos Verdes Estates less than a month ago, but head Chef Rafael Solórzano is widely known all over the South Bay, especially in Redondo Beach, where he once orchestrated menus at Delzano’s by the Sea in the marina and the former Lou-e-Luey’s, a Baja-style seafood restaurant.

Alfredo Garcias allows the Guadalajara-born chef to indulge in his favorite cuisine, that of his native Mexico. “The more you know about the culture and the food,” he said, “(the more you realize) it’s extensive and it’s great. It’s not just tamales, enchiladas and rellenos.”

Solórzano, 46, is already an institution at the Lunada BayHouse Restaurant, which is literally just steps across the courtyard from Alfredo Garcias in the Lunada Bay Plaza on Palos Verdes Drive West.

Both restaurants are owned and run by Solórzano and his partners—Brian Cull, who was born and raised in Manhattan Beach, and David Letchworth, a Redondo resident since 1961.

The Three Amigos have many decades of experience in the restaurant business, Letchworth as a restaurateur (from the Bourbon Bush in Manhattan Beach to the Blue Moon Saloon in Redondo to Pier 52 and Schlumpfelder’s in Hermosa) and Cull as a building contractor and owner of Tri Star Construction LLC in Redondo.

“I’ve been building restaurants for 35 years,” the never-married Cull, 52, said during an interview at Alfredo Garcias. He and Solórzano sat at a high table in the colorful bar area. “I built my first Mexican restaurant in Manhattan Beach (La Villa),” the contractor said. “It was there for about 25 years, next to the pier.”

Letchworth, 72, a Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce “Man of the Year” in 1987, has been a restaurant operator and consultant in the South Bay since 1972.

Three years ago, Cull, Letchworth and Solórzano transformed the former Viva La Pasta into the Lunada Bayhouse. Now, they've remodeled Casa Prontos into Alfredo Garcias.  

Where the BayHouse and Solórzano were voted “Best Restaurant” and “Best Chef” in the South Bay by the Daily Breeze last year, Alfredo Garcias hasn’t even had time to establish a presence in the area, much less a reputation.

One thing is clear: the restaurants couldn’t be more different. While the Lunada BayHouse offers a more formal dining experience with dishes such as Rack of Lamb, Seared Ahi Tuna and Filet Mignon, Alfredo Garcias is a family friendly place with cuisine from Northern and Southern Mexico—Mole, Cochinita Pibil and Enchiladas de Pollo.

Along with spectacular views of the ocean, the restaurant also affords customers a semi-private bar area conducive to watching football and basketball over Nachos and Margaritas.

Alfredo Garcias (named for no one in particular) is near and dear to Solórzano’s heart because it harkens back to his childhood on his parents’ ranch in Guadalajara, where he lived until he came to the U.S. at the age of 16.  

“David (Letchworth) grew up (on a farm) in Mississippi and I grew up in Mexico, but we had the same experience,” the chef said. “You grow up on a farm and you have all the corn fields and the cattle, everything on a ranch.”

The youngest of eight children, Solórzano remembers spectacular food, especially at Christmas: “My mom was a great cook, and my father was a caterer.” What did they prepare for the holidays? “It’s always got to be tamales. I think for 99 percent of all Mexican families, it’s got to be tamales.”

Solórzano brings the tradition to the restaurant with chicken tamales in red sauce and braised pork tamales in green sauce, possibly the best tamales on the planet, according to one patron, who asked not to be identified.

The chef remembers that "as a kid," he accompanied his father to the galas, weddings and parties he catered: “Everywhere he went he was treated really well, because it was like being a star.”

Still, the cuisine in his native country has infinite new variations these days.  “When I go down to Mexico, I always try new flavors,” said the always-smiling chef, who lives in Inglewood with his wife, Carina, and two sons. “I love different cuisines.”

A student of Mexican cooking, Solórzano devours books on the subject, including those by Rick Bayless, an American chef and author who specializes in modern interpretations of Mexican cuisine, and the late Diana Kennedy, a British food writer known as “the Julia Child of Mexican cooking.”

The chef, who began his career at Alice’s Restaurant in Malibu in 1982, likes to talk about the history of California and how Spain and Mexico impacted the evolution of food prior to statehood.

“The first (people) to immigrate to the United States were from the northern side of Mexico, people who lived in Chihuahua and Sonora,” he said. “And that has influenced Mexican food ever since,” especially traditional fare like enchiladas and salsa. 

“Southern dishes are a little bit more earthy,” Solórzano said. Mole, a spicy chocolate sauce served on enchiladas, chicken and nachos at the restaurant, is one example, Cochinita Pibil (marinated pork shoulder) is another.

The pork shoulder, which is baked in banana leaves, is “marinated in achiote, (a chili in Southern Mexico) and annatto seeds,” he explained. “The seasoning is really pasty and wet, and you marinate (the pork) along with lime juice and orange juice, garlic and spices.”

The West has influenced Mexican cooking as well, he said. “I always love a Tex-Mex cuisine. American food with a Mexican touch, that’s what I call it.”

He interprets Tex-Mex at the restaurant with his own version of Shrimp Scampi. “We add a little bit of garlic, olive oil, lime juice and a touch of butter. (Also) fresh tomatoes, cilantro and jalapeño. That gives it a little bit of a different taste,” he explained.

Lobster tacos and crab enchiladas are referred to as “Baja-style seafood,” something the chef introduced in earlier ventures with David Letchworth, whom he joined forces with in 2003 at Lou-e-Luey’s. “In Ensenada, (you) literally take the crab and the lobster meat out of the shells for enchiladas," Solórzano said. "That is fantastic.”

“Everything is fresh,” Brian Cull interjected. “Nothing comes out of a can.” That includes margaritas, which are made with fresh juices, not a bottled mix.

As far as the brightly-painted décor is concerned, Cull said, “We picked these colors from Mexico. Every one came from houses in one city.”

Fortunately, some of the art from Casa Prontos proved ideal in the current incarnation. But the decoratively painted walls with their flowers and flourishes were done on commission by an artist. The fixtures are new, as are interesting touches, like old doors substituting for wainscoting.

Cull even mounted drawer fronts from old chests on the walls leading to the restrooms. He installed the beautiful travertine marble bar, three HD TVs and purchased several paintings, including one in the front entrance of Poncho’s in Manhattan Beach.

One seeming drawback for both Alfredo Garcias and the Lunada BayHouse is the apparent lack of sufficient parking—“unless you know Lunada Bay,” Cull said. Leading the way to the courtyard, he turned left, walking between the two restaurants to a nearby elevator, which takes you down one floor.

A large parking lot is hidden underneath the building site, and reached from Via Anacapa, which borders the tiny Lunada Bay shopping center.

The restaurants also suffer from signage that is easy to miss on the Lunada Bay Plaza building, especially at night. There are no street lights. Cull is hoping to rectify the signage situation, despite restrictions by the city.

Meanwhile, the Three Amigos will continue to enjoy their restaurants, Cull with a new appreciation of chili rellenos. “I never used to like them,” he said, not until he tasted those cooked by Solórzano. “Now I can’t get enough.”

The Lunada BayHouse is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner, Tuesday through Sunday from 4-10 p.m. Call 310-544-1704 for reservations or visit their website.

Alfredo Garcias Restaurant is open from 4-10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Call 310-544-1400 for reservations or visit their website.

Both are located inside the Lunada Bay Plaza at 2325 Palos Verdes Drive West, in the Lunada Bay area of Palos Verdes Estates.

Maureen Megowan January 30, 2013 at 06:02 PM
This restaurant has wonderful food. My husband and I love eating here. His favorite is the shrimp tacos and the crab enchiladas. I have had the chile rellenos and chicken tacos and they were delicious. The margaritas are also very tasty. Rafael is a great chef. We also love the Lunada Bayhouse. Their pasta is delicious. They have a fantastic lobster fetticinni with half a lobster tail at an incredible price. Their clam linquinni is also among the best I have ever had. Their fish and sauces are amazing. They also have great steaks. They have one of the best menus around where everything looks good.

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