I GREW UP IN GREENBRAE and was obsessed with food from a very young age. My family loved going out to eat and experiencing new flavors. Savoring food from other cultures showed me there was a whole world to discover. I still remember eating Chinese food at a restaurant where our waiter ordered for us from a menu written in Chinese. But truth be told, my family generally crossed the bridge to find interesting meals. Now, I’m thrilled to note that times have changed. Recently I visited three local family-run restaurants with ethnic cuisine that have become so successful they’ve opened other locations. These thriving businesses not only celebrate the diversity of our community, they’re giving people from all over the Bay Area a reason to cross the bridge the other way to dine right here in Marin.
MEET THE MAKERS
Sol Hernandez is the proprietor of Sol Food, the incredibly popular Puerto Rican eatery with two locations, which together employ around 280 people. Hernandez opened first in San Rafael in 2003 and expanded to Mill Valley in 2013. Although her father was Puerto Rican, she grew up in Marin; she learned the cooking style from an ex-boyfriend and gained her appreciation of the flavors from time spent on the island. Encouraged by her sisters, she launched the restaurants with her husband, Victor Cielo, as partner.
Hernandez and her husband work seven days a week. “For us it makes things easier, because otherwise we wouldn’t see each other very much,” she says. “We have complementary personalities and a lot of the same goals and determination.” Maintaining quality, consistency and authenticity has been her continual focus, and the succulent rotisserie chicken and fried plantains have won legions of fans. An admitted control freak, Hernandez defines success as being able to take a day off, which she hopes will happen someday soon.
Surinder Sroa owns and operates Lotus Cuisine of India and its street-food counterpart Lotus Chaat in San Rafael, as well as Cafe Lotus in Fairfax. While both his son and his nephew play active roles, he credits his wife, Linda, with encouraging him to use top-quality ingredients, make the restaurant as sustainable as possible, and cater to locals with vegan diets, gluten sensitivity and other needs. In 2013, renovations to the original location, opened in 1998, made it the first certified green Indian restaurant in Marin.
A farmer in India, Sroa worked in the grocery business when he came to the United States. As a restaurateur he places the same premium on honesty and strong customer service he observed in his father, who ran a grocery store in rural India: “Karma is going to get me back,” he says.
Ashok Kumar runs Avatar’s Indian restaurant in Sausalito and Avatar’s Punjabi Burrito shops in Fairfax, Mill Valley and Larkspur, with his wife and his sister-in-law, the widow of the restaurant’s namesake. They opened their first restaurant in 1989 and quickly won over customers with dishes like jerk chicken salad and smoky eggplant enchiladas. It was Kumar’s brotherin- law Avatar Ubhi, a manager at the legendary Valhalla Restaurant in Sausalito, who came up with the “ethnic confusion” concept, combining Indian, Italian, Jamaican and Mexican influences with an emphasis on healthy eating. When it comes to working with family, “we trust each other,” Kumar bluntly says.
“My brother-in-law came up with the cuisine, because he knew what people wanted,” he adds, although his own background in nutrition also came into play, along with that of his mother, an ayurvedic doctor. His no-butter, no-gluten, low-carb, no-added-sugar approach has resonated with Marinites from the start. “This will be the best meal of your life,” Kumar is famous for saying, and he clearly believes it.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
As a local, Hernandez knows what matters to her diners: “I’m trying to get authentic flavors but still have the food be as natural and healthy as possible.” She uses rice bran oil and olive oil instead of lard, lightens up the rice and beans by making them vegetarian and avoids packaged seasonings, since they often include MSG. She also strives to use 100 percent compostable packaging (the restaurant is currently at about 90 percent) and gets daily produce deliveries from her favorite farms.
For Sroa, finding what works has been an evolving process. He uses as many organic ingredients as possible and even worked with a customer to learn how to prepare completely gluten-free food for people with celiac disease. Cooks at his restaurants make their own breads and use ghee made from Clover’s organic butter and locally grown Lundberg Family Farms rice; the restaurants also serve organic and sustainable wines. People in Marin “are more educated,” Sroa notes. “They know about food.”
Kumar prides himself on being one of the first restaurateurs in the county to go smoke-free, long before it was the law. He’s passionate about healthy eating, incorporating local and wild fish into menus as well as fresh items from Marin-Sonoma Produce and homemade breads. But his not-so-secret competitive advantage, he feels, is love. “Love people and once they love you back, no one can touch you,” he says.
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
All three restaurateurs are actively involved in the community, donating food to charities and participating in fundraisers. Avatar’s and Lotus both provide large pre-Thanksgiving meals free of charge; at Avatar’s close to 2,000 people were served under a tent in 2016. Lotus has participated in the Sausalito Film Festival and donates to seniors. “Some people leave tips, and we match them and give them to the food bank,” Sroa says. And Sol Food provides food for events like the Tiburon Mile and the Mill Valley Film Festival. “We try to be involved with as many things as we can and to support lots of different kinds of fundraisers, always local ones. I personally think it’s the best way to advertise,” Hernandez says.