Charming, cozy and affordable, Westchester’s inconspicuous new eatery is worth checking out

By Richard Foss (richard@richardfoss.com)

There are many great restaurants that inhabit strange spaces — I know of some that thrive in alleys, others on second floors with little visibility, and several on unpromising streets that seem to be between nothing and nowhere. How people find these places I can’t imagine, but enough do that they stay in business.

A spot along a busy thoroughfare in Los Angeles might seem naturally better, but there’s a risk that people speeding by may be too focused on the road to notice what they’re passing. This is probably why none of the locals I queried knew about Café Solar, a coffeehouse and restaurant on Manchester Avenue about midway between Sepulveda and La Tijera boulevards. If you’re one of the thousands of people who drive by each day, you have to glance at just the right moment to see it.

To blink and miss Café Solar would be unfortunate because this quirky, comfortable little bakery and café is a gem. The space itself is curious but welcoming; the slanted wooden roof with trusses and girders at odd angles suggests that sometime long past this was a warehouse or workshop. It has been stripped to the wood now and is fairly conventional, save for the two vintage bicycles that hang from brackets near the door. The café tables are lit by plenty of natural light, and if you want even more of that commodity you can dine outside on the patio.

The menu at Café Solar is so extensive it appears daunting at first — pages of omelets, crepes, panini, salads and sandwiches — and that’s before you even start considering the daily specials, coffee drinks and alluring items in the pastry case. Though diners order at the counter here, on both visits I took a menu to a table to ponder for a few moments.

On that first trip my companion and I selected a vegetarian curry crepe, a daily special of soup and empanadas, and a croissant.

The croissant immediately made me well-disposed toward the place, because somebody around here really knows their way around an oven. It was flaky, buttery and light — so good that my immediate reaction was to consider ordering another one. I didn’t because I had no idea how large our meals were going to be, but I thought long and hard about it. It turned out that I made the right decision, because both of the mains we ordered arrived in generous portions.

The empanadas were plump and came with a big bowl of thick and creamy chicken tortilla soup. The soup was made with pureed squash and possibly some carrots, an unusual idea that worked. The empanadas were fried crisp rather than baked, and we received one stuffed with vegetable and cheese and one with picadillo, the mixture of ground beef and mild chili sauce with olives and chopped egg. The cheese and vegetable was good and the picadillo even better, but there was so much sauce that it was rather a mess to eat. I’d recommend that they keep this special on the menu but drain their meat mix a bit more.

Above: Seat yourself in Café Solar’s clean, open and airy interior dining room
Left: Grilled salmon topped with salsa criolla with Argentinian rice
Right: Strawberry shortcake with fresh fruit, basic, whipped cream and vanilla cake crumble

The vegetarian curry crepe was made with white flour rather than the traditional buckwheat (which typically adds a bit of flavor to savory crepes), but the mild vegetable curry had enough going on that the dish worked nicely. It is served with a choice of fruit or breakfast potatoes, and I chose the latter. The chopped red potatoes had been crisped with rosemary and herbs, and I’d happily have them again.

We accompanied the meal with fresh juice and a house special coffee made with mocha and a little shot of caramel. I usually like my coffee to taste entirely of coffee, but this mix of bitter and sweet was a nice change of pace.

I liked that first meal well enough to come back for a soup and panini combo the next day. The panini was a tuna salad melt with olives and nicely made, but the soup stole the show. It was a corn and cheese chowder that had plenty of vegetable sweetness accented with herbs, and it confirmed my high opinion of the kitchen.

Café Solar has been in business for a few months now but was relatively vacant on both of my visits. This is a shame because it offers something truly exceptional in the airport area: a pleasant place to eat very good food at modest prices. It’s not just handy for the neighborhood, but worth a special trip.

Café Solar, 6224 W. Manchester Ave., Westchester (424) 227-6486 cahuengagroup.com

 

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