Last year, a fleet of Twin Cities food trucks transformed their mobile businesses into brick-and-mortar restaurants, and though we're just barely into the new year, there's another similar, empire-expanding movement developing in 2014: market stalls going full-service. First Kat Melgaard and Thomas Kim migrated their stall, the Left-Handed Cook, just across from the Midtown Global Market building and absorbed it into their second venture, the Rabbit Hole, a roomier sit-down restaurant with a full bar. Now the perennially popular Sonora Grill stall has followed suit, taking their operation a little farther down Lake Street to the former home of Molly Quinn's in the Longfellow neighborhood.
To the delight and relief of Sonora's devotees, owners Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Paredes, long-time friends who have trained and worked at some of the Twin Cities' best restaurants, including Bar La Grassa and Solera, have no plans to shut down their original quick-service stall. And in even better news, this new Longfellow location feels very much like an extension of that humble stall rather than a rebranding or a totally separate concept. In other words, they've moved and brought their greatest hits along with them: the caramelos (spectacularly tasty, creative, three-bite tacos); the bocadillos (South American-style sandwiches, served here on Salty Tart buns); and the pinchos (a Sonoran take on shish kebab, skewered, seasoned, and expertly grilled). To capitalize on the larger kitchen and open dining area, they've also added a number of made-to-share entrees, a couple of desserts, and, of course, one of the most welcome additions of this expansion, a full bar.
The focus of the bar program here is, predictably, tequila, but the cocktails they're turning out are anything but predictable. Almost every drink we sampled had some sort of unexpected twist. Their take on a margarita, for example, includes fresh basil and thinly sliced jalapenos for a light layer of heat. The classic Mojito gets a tropical treatment with the addition of coconut juice, and the hibiscus-spiked Hermosillo has an almost scotch-like quality to it, with smoky notes wafting off of the mezcal. Not one of Sonora's cocktails veers toward the syrupy or too-sweet end of the spectrum or gets bogged down with too many components. A handful of wines, mainly of Spanish origin, and bottled beers round out the drink menu, but cocktails are the thing to order here. As great and likeable as many of the bars in this neighborhood are (Merlins Rest, Riverview Wine Bar, the Rail Station), few can really tout an excellent craft cocktail, something Sonora's customers are sure to appreciate come summer, when the planned patio opens at this new location.
For now, diners can pair the citrusy beverages with any number of elegant and boldly flavored dishes coming out of Sonora's kitchen, which draw from the cuisines of Spain, Latin and South America and, at times, borrow some Asian flavors too. Aside from the caramelos, which remain Sonora's strongest asset, the two standout small plates are the crispy pancetta-wrapped prawns served with a velvety puree of mint and peas, and the Argentinian-style empanadas, with their perfectly flaky, super-flavorful crust. Often, empanadas are merely made passable by a good filling, a distraction from sub-par pastry. Sonora flips the focus: A simple filling of carrots, onions, and finely ground beef filling has subtle warm spice, but it's the fabulous, buttery casing that steals the show. Also of note in the starters category is the creamy guacamole, punctuated with crunchy raw bits of sweet and hot peppers and the battered and exceptionally light eggplant fries, cut into planks and taken for a quick dip in some searingly hot oil.
There was one dish that, despite rave reviews from our server, felt out of place and way overwrought: the newly added Hermosillo roll, Sonora's version of fully cooked sushi. It's supposed to be like an inside-out tempura roll, but ended up coming off more like a seaweed, beef, and cream cheese-stuffed arancini. The thick layer of rice trapped all the heat in the middle of the roll, taking any fresh or crunchy properties out of the components in the middle, and to make matters worse it was absolutely drenched in soy sauce. Apparently this one started out as a special and was so well-received they decided to keep it. Perhaps we're in the minority, but we just couldn't let this dish float by on its good intentions.
Mexican chefs cannot conceal their love affair with mayo, slathering it on corn on the cob and serving it instead of ketchup with French fries. Castillon has always had a knack for aiolis, but he seemed to find every opportunity to add more to his repertoire here. There's a version blended with chimichurri, a vibrant green cilantro one, and another made with loads of chiles de arbol, all of which make appearances in the handful of caramelos on the menu. Our table was split on choosing a favorite, but whittled the options down to the flame-red shrimp tempura caramelo with thinly sliced cabbage and the aforementioned cilantro aioli, and the sweet and salty chicken rojo caramelo with smooth Chihuahua cheese and incredibly tasty, tangy orange salsa. The 12-hour braised tongue tacos with smoky chipotle salsa were impressive in texture as were the meaty yet actually meat-free shiitake mushroom caramelos. They were silky, generously stuffed, and vaguely Asian in flavor profile, topped with pickled carrots and poblano peppers.
You can't go wrong with a caramelo, but diners with heartier appetites can share the massive plate of pollo asado, a butterflied whole grilled chicken that was literally dripping with savory juices, served with refried beans, hand-made chewy tortillas, and papas en escabeche, a mustard-y Mexican spin on potato salad, served warm. Another satisfying square meal that's been added to the menu at this location is the plate of uniquely cut ribs, which have much more grill flavor than smoked flavor. They were sliced, not into slabs or so-called riblets, but into easy-to-handle, medium-thick coins. Each medallion had fairly equal parts meat and fat, and the accompanying acidic slaw and small bowl of fruity salsa helped to balance out the relative saltiness of the dish.
Though more than satiated by our Sonoran spread, we couldn't resist ordering dessert; once you see that another table has churros, you can think of little else. Our batch felt a little under-fried, actually, with the center dough tasting almost like a gently set custard. The classic chocolate cake, layered with caramel and sprinkled with toasted coconut was perhaps a less authentic ending to our meal, but a very successful sweet nonetheless.
Fans of the original market stall will be happy to revisit old favorites (yes, they still have that bacon-wrapped hot dog) and have a lovely cocktail alongside those dishes. Newbies are bound to be impressed by Castillon's deft hand and inspired take on Latin fusion. Lucky Longfellowans.