by Dan Johnson
I am forever delighted to stumble upon manhole covers in Downtown that have been cast to read, “City of Los Angeles: Made in Mexico.” Here is 110 pounds of foreign-forged honesty speaking a glorious if rarely uttered truth. This is typical of the City of Angels where it is forever in vogue to hide unpopular truths at street level.
Once upon a time, an ultra-shabby collection of buildings known as Sonoratown sat beneath the looming guns at Fort Moore on the site of today’s Chinatown. The core of Los Angeles was shaped by a down and out stretch of adobes that spoke in name and demographics to an undeniable link between Los Angeles and Mexico.
Though long gone, Downtown’s historic tenderloin receives due attention in a well-deserved name check at 8th St.’s latest taco sensation: Sonoratown. The northern Mexico-styled eatery joins Guero’s and Casa La Dona in a murderer’s row of superlative Mexican quick service restaurants located in and around 8th and Los Angeles.
Distinct mesquite grilled flavors and flour tortillas made in a traditional lard-based style embody the taste of northern Mexico. I didn’t know this off-hand because I grew up on Taco Bell, but co-owner and front of house luminary Jennifer Feltham was gracious enough to pour wisdom into the tankard of ignorance known as my head.
Feltham and partner Teo Diaz worked diligently to duplicate the cuisine of Diaz’s hometown. While I’m delighted that there is a spiritual, almost genealogical, component to their food, I frankly do not care because they sell inexpensive cuisine that is filling and tastes good.
Sonoratown has a meager storefront. You will know it for the sign above the door on which a languid cow chews cud in a literal advertisement for what is being grilled within. Inside, fresh white tile merges with turquoise paint on walls festooned with a predictable and welcome “Sonoratown” graphic.
(You should be deeply suspicious of anything written on the walls of a Mexican restaurant that is not the restaurant’s name, menu or a “we reserve the right to refuse service” sign. Kitschy phrases in the vein of “mi casa, su casa,” “sabor siempre” or “comida con amor” are often a dubious prelude to an over priced nacho-cheese chalupa.)
Sonoratown lends the distinct impression of legitimacy undergirded with thrift. Nothing on the food menu is above three dollars. You will recognize fan favorites in the taco and the quesadilla as well as items of tortilla esoterica, such as the lorenzo and the caramelo, that sound as if they were drawn directly out of a Geoff Palmer brand strategy meeting.
I ordered a pair of caramelos (meat, beans, much cheese and salsa that has been folded in half for my pleasure) with steak. I opted to add poblano peppers bringing up my grand total to that holiest of holy numbers: 8.72.
They have a novel concept at Sonoratown—food should be made to order. While I appreciate the immediate turnaround of the heating lamp/grease trap set (I see you Margarita’s), it’s delightful to wait in anticipation of my meal while leering out at 8th St. That hallowed corridor is a dual use safety valve through which the Skid Row discarded and the over-caffeinated CoLab set drain towards the Fashion District and the Historic Core. In the window between ordering and devouring, I lost at least five minutes of unaccounted for time staring out at a vortex of a human being locked in an animated argument with himself.
Bam. Upon receiving my food, I was delighted to see a veritable forest of unordered vegetables. Radishes and something that was either a stalk of shallots or green onions landed on my plate—for free. I have a family history of scurvy so there’s no way I’m passing these up. Sprinkle a little juice from the complimentary lime wedges that came with my caramelos and you too, dear reader, will avoid losing for teeth from malnourishment for at least another forty-eight hours.
The caramelos were a treasure. Juicy, filling, cheese-ridden, meaty, be-peppered, salsa oozing—these are all descriptors I reserve for the things I cherish most in life. Tack the Sonoratown caramelo onto that list.
I would characterize the moments and hours after the meal as an “afterglow.” My colon peacefully surrendered to its duty and became the very nexus of a historical and culinary ouroboros, by which my city’s heritage merged with a modern day meal-time messiah.
Despite being closed on Sunday and Monday, I award Sonoratown a “1” on the binary and a “I will stand watch on your roof with a .30-30 lever action rifle when the next riots pop off” on the I’m Bat Shit Crazy scale.