The Sunfire Mexican Grill is a warm, sunny dining room occupying a doublewide storefront in Rockland, bustling at noon on a weekday. It feels like a slightly eclectic abuela’s kitchen with homey touches, tasteful Mexican-themed artwork, and light wood accents. We’re lucky that Rockland has a lot of these really sweet little lunch spots. From The Brown Bag to The Brass Compass, Rockland’s Main Street is a great place to grab something good. Casual, cozy eateries where the food is like home cooking, but you don’t have to do the dishes. You can sit and chat for an hour, meet friends, bring your crabby baby, people watch and enjoy being out in the community, a very comfortable activity, especially as the weather starts to cool. For over a year, Malcolm has insisted that the fare at Sunfire far exceeds any expectations you may have about the Mexican food being served in a town more famous for lobster than for lengua. I must admit, I had my doubts, and since it was always closed when we wanted to go, I never had to challenge my assumptions, which is just the way I like it.
Malcolm: I can’t think of a cozier place to eat lunch in Rockland before crawling home in a refried bean stupor for a nap. The hours are tricky, though, which is why it’s taken so long for us to try it. Sunfire Mexican Grill is open for lunch, then closes at three, before opening again for dinner at five. It’s also closed on Sunday and Monday.
We sat at the last open table, with a view into the kitchen. I was reminded of Mexico more than I expected, when I saw a small crowd of cooks, all working together in such a small space. The menu seems designed for simplicity, always a good thing in my opinion, with nothing to frighten or alienate diners more comfortable with McDonalds than morcilla. To be clear, I fall firmly into that category myself. The black blood sausage sold on the streets of Merida totally freaks me out. And while I have gone deeper into authentic Mexican food than I ever intended, I am a girl who grew up on greasy taco salads and black olives in her Old El Paso taco shells. I am always happy to order the basics: tortilla chips with guacamole and salsa, a hard shell taco and chicken enchilada.
Malcolm: Mexican food in Maine seems to be divided largely into two camps: There’s the bottomless blue margarita, queso-in-the-carpet dumbed-down junk food like you’ll find at the Maine institutions like Margarita’s and On the Border (the latter of which, by the way, we totally eat at, whenever we’re eating emotionally), serving Ameri-Mex chipotle-laced frankenfood. It’s got little to do with real Mexican food, but it’s mostly crowd-pleasing stuff, perfect for sopping up some post-workday tequila. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the places like Portland’s Taco Escobarr, that are reaching for some sort of vacation photo faux-authenticity and keeping preparations simple, often at the expense of flavor.
The Sonoran-influenced menu at Sunfire Mexican Grill falls somewhere in the middle. There aren’t any big surprises (though there is a surprising amount of attention given to chicken mole, as well as a recurring torta ahogada special that I can’t wait to try), though the menu does offer several options designed to appeal to fans of all types of Mexican food. There are huge California-style burritos (like the enormous shredded beef version I sampled), smothered in spicy enchilada sauce and shredded lettuce, stuffed with rice, beans, and your choice of shredded beef or pork, ground beef, or chicken, right alongside “la bandera” enchiladas, covered in three stripes of colorful enchilada sauce representative of the Mexican flag.
I was pleased with the slightly picante, super fresh and creamy green guacamole. The only person who didn’t like it was Violet, but thus far in her culinary travels avocado is the only food she spits out, so they shouldn’t take it personally. Also, she has the palate of a total baby. Served with a finely chopped pico de gallo, it was a perfect starter.
Malcolm: I also liked the pleasantly spicy pico and the tortilla chips, though I was a little surprised by their five dollar price tag.
The most notable thing about the Sunfire is that the food is being prepared with obvious care. Between us, we sampled their beef, pork, and chicken, and each meat was the fall-apart consistency we expect from braised filling. Well-seasoned and cooked slow and low, this makes all the difference. Both corn and flour tortillas were pillowy and fresh, doing their job keeping meat and cheese and veggies all tucked in and modest. And while there was nothing radical about Sunfire Mexican Grill, while it isn’t setting mouths and/or the culinary world aflame, what they are doing, they are doing well.
Malcolm: I couldn’t help but wonder about what owners Pam and Allan Cota are cooking for themselves at home; they obviously have a natural affinity and admiration for Mexican cooking, culture and flavor, and their skill and attention to some oft-overlooked details (including the restaurant’s tortillas and house-made salsas) is impressive. It makes me suspect that some of their flavors, while delicious, are being intentionally dialed-down slightly to appeal to as many different types of diners as possible. It’s a business decision I understand, but I wonder what each dish would taste like if it were let completely off the leash.
The bill was higher than I would have expected. I am starting to wonder if I have to raise my cost expectations. Things just are more than I think they will be, much of the time. Maybe it’s a sign I’m getting old.
Malcolm: I was a little put off by the bill, as well. We paid about $50 bucks for two entrees, some chips and salsa, some guacamole, and a cold Pacifico. It’s not outrageous, by any means; just more than I would expect to pay for a Mexican lunch, and enough that we aren’t likely to make Sunfire a regular Monday lunch stop.
Anyway, it wasn’t expensive by any real standards, it may be just a little more than you have budgeted for a no-good-reason midweek lunch, unless you are living in Rockland as a lady of leisure, in which case you should look me up; I would make an excellent reading and traveling companion a la Amy March. Sunfire Mexican Grill is a perfect fit for a slowed-down city of retirees and young families. Rockland in the winter has all these pockets of coziness, and Sunfire Mexican Grill is no exception. We’re happy they are an option for Mexican food in Rockland, and I’m sure will be doubly grateful when winter finally descends and they remain a beacon of warmth and jalapeno spice. It will be a great place to get out of the house, and share a taco with our fellow housebound townspeople once in a while.
Sunfire Mexican Grill: 488 Main Street, Rockland, ME 04841; (207) 594-6196