It has officially opened. Solita, the tacos and agave spirits-centric restaurant space taking over the largest retail space inside Landmark Square at the northwest corner of Pine Avenue and Ocean Boulevard brings much-needed relief to a food scene that has been battered by the pandemic.

The Cypress-based restaurant group known as Xperience—home to major brands spanning El Torito and Chevy’s to Las Brisas and Acapulco—has filled an equally massive space that was left empty mid-pandemic by Rock Bottom Brewery.

Serving the Downtown community for over two decades, the brewery’s closure marked the beginning of the pandemic’s worst effect on DTLB’s restaurant scene: Shortly following, Federal Bar and Noypitz—two of the largest restaurant spaces—closed, construction on Kulture & Kraft at Broadway and Pine suspended, Pier 76 at 1st and Pine closed.

The overall aura surrounding DTLB’s food scene—a scene, mind you, that was unquestionably the heart of Long Beach’s culinary domain—was grim and the hope for investment minimal: Who would want to invest in massive, indoor spaces during a time when restaurants were treading new waters, access to construction materials were slim, and people were getting used to outdoor dining?

“For as dark as everything felt there for a moment, when we saw this space, there was no question for us: ‘We gotta have this,'” said Xperience COO Mike Johnson. “We had been eyeing not just locations here in SoCal but in other states as well—but with the convention center, the feel of the area, the community here, it was a no-brainer.”

That community part has been one of the most important aspects of Solita’s move into DTLB. Case in point, during its official grand opening, all proceeds from a silent auction and a portion of bar sales at the restaurant were donated to DLBA’s Fresh Start campaign that helps our unhoused neighbors Downtown experiencing homelessness.

Johnson and Xperience’s Senior Director of Culinary operations Cristhian Salazar also have been boarded up at the Renaissance Hotel for nearly a month, visiting neighboring restaurants, offering free lunches to passersby as a gauge for what works on the menu, and welcoming some 130 newly minted employees, including some that unfortunately lost their job with the closure of Rock Bottom.

“I know some people tend to think of us as big—and yes, we definitely have a pretty big reach and array of brands,” Salazar said. “But it’s me and Mike at every restaurant, hands-on. You’ll see Mike bussing tables. You’ll find employees who have been with us since day one.”

Those last few tidbits are true: Often sporting nothing more than a pair of jeans and a polo, Johnson was exploring and helping every aspect of the restaurant when faced with a packed house on its soft opening in early July. At one point, he came in with a new pair of Crocs for a line cook and a case of Monster energy drinks.

“I know it’s often said and, believe me, I find it cheesy too but we really are a family,” Johnson said. “And especially after the pandemic, we want our employees to have some sense of stability because, without it, we as a company don’t have stability.”

The space itself has remained, for the most part, the same as it was at Rock Bottom albeit with updated furniture, a teal-meats-ebony color scheme, and an extension of the bar to highlight the restaurant’s 70-plus agave spirits bar.

The largest change is, obviously, the food being offered. While Rock Bottom offered middling bar food at best, Solita—through Salazar’s direction of its massive kitchen staff—offers what can be easily called Mexican but is more of a Californian take on Mexican food.

Giant Ceasar salads with fried flour tortilla strips—an ode to the Tijuana-born salad—sit next to equally giant bowls of ceviche with bits of mango and pineapple.

A grilled cob of elote is brought to guests table-side before being cut and served as esquites.

A sizzling plate of queso Oaxaqueño—called “quesillo” in Oaxaca proper—is slathered in bits of pork belly, Serranos, and green onion.

A genuinely wonderful array of tacos—including a stellar example of tacos de alambre, a mix of carne asada and pork belly atop of a layer of cheese and nopales—that are not only hefty but span from the immediately accessible to the more California-inspired, like their vegan-friendly beans-meets-corn offering topped with fried sweet potato strips.

And while Salazar has to assure that consistency exists across all Solitas—locations in Huntington Beach, Anaheim, and Valencia opened before the one in DTLB—the main difference between this Solita and others was a gift from Rock Bottom’s old operations: an in-house smoker and wood pit.

The result?

Head-on prawns, marinated in butter and grilled over oak fire, doused post-grill with lemon and oozing with oaky smoke the moment it hits the table.

Whole (or half) chickens, brined’n’broasted with oak smoke and oak roasting, ready to be torn apart by your fingers or a fork, to be used as a taco stuffer or, given its depth, fine on its own with a squeeze of acid.

Smoked pork ribs—paired with fried Serrano chiles, called “toreados” in Mexico proper—for heat—that evoke Texas more than they do Mexico.

It’s an incredibly expansive menu—and one that, particularly for the incoming conventioneers, introduces a culinary lexicon that is likely foreign to them, folding them into the heavy influence Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans have had on the SoCal palate: Toreados, nopales, elote, taco de vampiro, pescado de Mazatlán, epazote, albondigas…

And this is just the first step for Solita in DTLB—or what Johnson calls “phase one.”

“Our goal over the next six to nine months is to continue to expand in the existing space we have,” Johnson said. “That could mean a separate tequila tasting room or pushing through some walls, fire pits, private bar spaces… We’re all about tacos and margaritas, right? It’s on our walls, on our branding—and we want to evoke the many ways that can be interpreted, especially through the local community here along with the conventioneers visiting town.”

Welcome to Downtown, Solita.

Solita is located at 1 Pine Avenue.