The tiny Solana Beach neighborhood of Eden Gardens has acquired a nearly legendary reputation over the years as the county enclave for Mexican food.
Four eateries range down a short stretch of Valley Avenue as a sort of unique restaurant row devoted solely to the traditional local style of Mexican cuisine. The largest, Fidel's, generally features waits of greater or lesser duration, as does the neighboring Tony's Jacal; the smallest and funkiest, the Market Cafe, attracts a fairly young crowd that appreciates the moderate prices and enormous portions.
Both literally and stylistically in the middle ground among the others is the Blue Bird Cafe, also known as El Pajaro Azul. The namesake and mascot, a tiny blue parrot, is painted discreetly on several of the walls, but you have to look to find it, rather in the manner of the visual searches conducted in the "Where's Waldo?" books.
The decor has much of the feel of Mexico, particularly given the rows of dark pine booths that line both walls in the main dining room. Murals of scenes from other eras underscore the references to Old Mexico, and the mood generally is quieter and more relaxed than at the neighboring establishments.
The service does not seem uniformly well supervised. On the course of a recent visit, the waitress took the appetizer order and then vanished; her shift apparently had drawn to a close, but no further service was forthcoming until a busboy noticed the apparently abandoned party in the corner and undertook, with some grace, to guide it through the rest of the evening.
The Blue Bird has been around for quite some time, and so have been the dishes in which it specializes. None of the offerings should strike anyone familiar with the great run of Southern California's Mexican restaurants as unusual, but a number of them should make a good impression. Much to the restaurant's credit, it actually serves hot food hot , as a guest accustomed to the tepid fare served by the majority of local eateries painfully discovered upon taking a first, searing forkful of carne con chile verde .
Except for the zesty salsa served with the usual complimentary chips, the heat stops with the temperature of the food; some dishes may be noticeably spiced, but they are not spicy-hot. For example, a spoonful of the salsa brought a welcome tang to the quesadilla gorda (a "fat" quesadilla, because it is generously stuffed), a flour tortilla folded around a flavorful but mild filling of chopped raw tomatoes and onions, melted cheese and shredded Ortega chilies.
This dish is the most impressive on a brief appetizer list that also offers guacamole, bean dip ( frijoles refritos blended with cheese and salsa) and nachos.
The menu offers all the usual tacos, enchiladas, burritos, tostadas and chiles rellenos , both alone and in assorted combinations. Of greater interest are the chicken specialties and the trio of traditional Mexican dishes, a category that embraces gallina en mole , camarones Acapulco (shrimp in a sauce of tomato, onion and Anaheim peppers) and chilaquiles , or shredded chicken layered with corn tortillas, cheese and enchilada sauce. The gallina en mole , perhaps more widely known hereabouts as chicken mole , offered tender chicken in a dark, savory sauce in which the flavors of chocolate and cinnamon stood out more forcefully than is often the case. Under the " gallina especiales " heading, the menu mentions chicken enchiladas, tacos, taquitos and burritos.
Yet another especiales list includes carne asada ; steak ranchero (a cut-up T-bone, first seared in a skillet and then simmered in tomato sauce); shredded beef and chicken chimichangas , and both chile verde and chile colorado . The mild green and spicier red sauce both dress cubes of beef that, while tender, have little flavor of their own. Like virtually all the entrees, the chile is garnished with seasoned rice and rather rich, smooth refried beans.
The dessert list offers a flaming flan, as well as the Blue Bird's version of the popular dessert known as bunuelos . BLUE BIRD CAFE
646 Valley Ave., Solana Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily.
Cost: Entrees from $4.50 to $9.90. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $40.