Sonora Grill comes to Midtown Global Market
Sonora Grill's Conrado Badilla, Alejandro Castillon, and Fernando Arnanda. Take the tour.
E. Katie Holm
Squint a little and Sonora Grill, a new food stand in the Midtown Global Market, could be the next Chipotle. It's a better concept, arguably, than most of those that competed on America's Next Great Restaurant, and has already kept its doors open longer than the show's winner, Soul Daddy. Perhaps Steve Ellis has a few more burrito bucks burning a hole in his pocket?
The restaurant, if you can call it that, is little more than a facade to an open kitchen and a small seating area. But Sonora is a lean, mean, three-man operation with good cooking and slick branding. Its contemporary color palette and smart logo make the place look franchise-ready.
Sonora is the brainchild of Alejandro Castillon, who previously cooked at Solera, Barrio, and, most recently, Bar La Grassa. Castillon's business partner is Conrado Badilla, a friend from Sonora, Mexico, with whom he had moved to Minnesota about 10 years ago. Castillon does the cooking with the help of his cousin, Fernando Arnanda, while Badilla runs the register and helps customers. The Global Market already counts several Mexican restaurants as tenants, but Sonora Grill distinguishes itself by adding influences from Spain and South America and submitting traditional dishes to a gourmet chef's makeover.
Sonora is a state in Mexico's northwest corner, bordering Arizona, and seafood is prominent in its cuisine, due to the lengthy coastline. But there's also a lot of cattle raising in the area, so cowboy vittles—beef cooked over an open flame—are abundant. Sonora Grill's menu consists of four main sections: pincho meat skewers, bocadillo sandwiches, Sonora-style tacos or caramelos, and salads. Marinated pork, beef, and chicken are all available in the first three sections, supplemented by other proteins, including tempura shrimp, turkey chorizo, and tongue.
Pincho is a term for bar snacks used in Spain's Basque country, but the dishes are also found in many other Spanish-speaking countries, such as Puerto Rico. They're small, sharable bites similar to tapas, except served on a pincho, Spanish for "spike." The grill's tender bites of chicken leg-and-thigh meat have a smoky flavor and a tangy mojo verde marinade. When it comes to beef, Sonorans tend to favor flavorful cuts like skirt steak, but the skewered chunks served with Argentinean chimichurri sauce are rather tough and chewy—probably too much so for those used to more tender cuts. The pincho may be ordered with sides of coconut rice, beans flavored with guajillo chiles, and soft flour tortillas.
The Spanish bocadillos take Latin meats and serve them in the style of an American burger: between a bun, with fries on the side. A fantastic slow-cooked pork guajillo is garnished with Chihuahua cheese, onions, tomato, and arugula, and it has an equally delicious beef chuck variant. In both cases, the shredded meat isn't overly sauced or salted, so its flavor stays pure. Castillon adds a few fine-dining touches—house-pickled onions, aioli, and arugula—to broaden the blend of flavors and textures.
Mexican cuisine has its own sandwich, the torta, but its bread typically seems like an afterthought, especially compared to Sonora's bocadillos, which use glossy-topped buns from another MGM tenant, the lauded Salty Tart. The freshly baked dough is soft but sturdy and tastes as sweet and rich as challah—it's an ideal sandwich bun and sets a new standard in the category.
In northwest Mexico, and across the border in Arizona, hotdogueros vendors peddling Sonoran-style hot dogs are a common sight. But the griddled dogs, wrapped in a spiral of crispy bacon and stuffed with Mexican condiments, have only recently become hip in the Twin Cities, showing up last spring on Barrio's food truck. Castillon's take on his homeland's hot dog is an excellent one. First, he makes his own wiener from ground pork, spices, and salt, skipping the usual preservatives (almost everything on Sonora's menu, actually, except for the buns and tortillas, are made in its kitchen). The dog is sliced in half, and both sides are coiled in bacon and cooked until they're crisp, then topped with turkey chorizo, sautéed onions, tomato, and cilantro aioli. The rowdy concoction comes tucked into a hot dog-shaped Salty Tart bun and makes the typical Chicago dog seem as boring as ketchup and mustard.
Sonora has found a killer condiment in its aioli, which is made every morning and blended with various chiles and herbs. The cilantro aioli, for example, is an ultra-creamy mayonnaise with a raw garlic bite and a fresh grassiness. Aioli isn't a part of Sonoran cuisine—it's Castillon's addition—but it adds an extra layer of richness and flavor to the tacos, sandwiches, and French fries, which are made with potatoes or, more intriguingly, eggplant.
Around these parts, expressing a preference for Mexican food topped with sour cream or cheddar inspires mocking—there goes another dairy-obsessed Midwesterner bastardizing authentic cuisine. But in Sonora, such pairings are common enough that there's a term, caramelos, to indicate a taco served with melted cheese. The tacos may be ordered with pork, chicken, and beef, as well as battered-and-fried shrimp, mild and meaty slow-cooked tongue, and crispy, breaded eggplant. The heaviness of the taco fillings is tempered by their delicate toppings, including salsa, cilantro, and cabbage.
Fast-food salads should be a simple concept, but they often end up just lame—remember McDonald's failed salad-in-a-cup concept, the McSalad Shaker? Sonora's salads incorporate just a few elements, but the combinations, such as arugula and pickled red onions dressed with a creamy anchovy dressing, are as unexpected as they are meticulously prepared.
Recently, Sonora started serving breakfasts, including fluffy pancakes made with blue corn flour and chipotle chilaquiles—fried tortilla chips and scrambled eggs paired with a side of turkey chorizo. (Chorizo is typically made with beef or pork, but Badilla's mother came up with the ground turkey version as a lower-fat alternative, which works just as well.) Sonora also makes its own horchata, which is blessedly not too sweet, as well as hibiscus tea, or agua de flor de Jamaica, a tart, cranberry-like drink that they blend with a little fresh-squeezed orange juice.
The restaurant usually offers a weekly special, which allows Castillon a little more creativity. In the past he's made a classic Spanish paella as well as invented a fried chicken taco topped with orange salsa and chili de arbol aioli, demonstrating his chef's instinct to delight palates with contrasting flavors and textures. So go ahead and keep eating your beloved burritos, but you'll be missing out if you don't expand your repertoire to include pinchos, caramelos, and bocadillos.
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