Sonoratown comes to Los Angeles
PHOTOS AND WORDS BY : JASON STEWART
If you’ve ever sat at the Mexican border on a hot Sunday afternoon, you known how much of a grim wait it can be, sometimes 4-5 hours in your car idling anxiously. Now imagine trying to breeze back to America with 500 pounds of white powder in your trunk.
That’s how Jen and Teo of DTLA’s Sonoratown, spend their days off, driving bags of flour over the border to be made into the perfect tortillas that form the base of their signature Sonoran taco. Tortillas made from stateside flours just didn’t taste right to them, unlike the ones Teo grew up eating at the infamous Taqueria Asadero Campas in Sonora. The Mexican ranch land known for its steak tacos (its state seal features a cow’s head and bales of wheat) butts up against the desert border of Arizona, and their tacos are a reflection of that less than fruitful landscape. Cows, wheat, and mesquite are about the only things that grow there, and it shows in the two key differences of their famous carne asada taco: one, the fatty hunks of finely chopped beef are always grilled over mesquite, it has to be mesquite. Fat from the simply salted short ribs drip down on the glowing wood sending meat flavored smoke right back into the open grains, an experience you simply can’t get on a gas grill or flat top. And two, they use flour tortillas, the kind usually reserved for burritos, instead of corn.
Sonoratown has painstakingly perfected their flour tortilla, loaded with lard, thin and translucent, the ratio of fat to flour is enough to embalm the wheat instead of fusing with it, you can throw one of their tortillas on the Sunday times and still read the crossword puzzle through it. Sonoratown employs someone full time with the task of hand making tortillas, the carpal-tunneled dance is neither cost effective nor efficient, but it’s the only way they’ve been able to maintain their rigorous standards. If Jen likes you enough, she might send you home with a basket of tortillas wrapped in a tiny poncho blanket to take home to experiment with. It’s almost perverse having them in the privacy of your own home, like making PB&J on Bay Cities bread. You can eat them cold with butter and salt, you can toast them dry in the oven and they’ll crisp up to a perfect golden brown, you’ll want to try them every which way.
Meeting with Jen and Teo at the new Highland Park Brewery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, we’re steps away from the park where Teo would go running some mornings. We stopped to admire a giant compass pointing to the different old neighborhoods in town, one pointed south east to Sonoratown. They talked about how, with years of front of house experience under their belt but little spent in the kitchen, they drove down to Mexico on a whim to Sonora’s Taqueria Asadero Campas and asked Javier, their head taquero, if he’d like a job making tacos in America. After politely declining the offer, Javier volunteered to instead come and teach them everything they’d need to know about running a taco shop, down to building a wood fire strong enough to not die under a busy Saturday lunch rush. Teo and Jen slept on their own couch while he took their bed, whipping them into shape while they got ready to open doors. After returning home to Mexico, Javier offered to come back to LA and work full time for the restaurant which was admittedly still in need of his guidance, he had also fallen for Teo’s sister during those short weeks, they’re now married with a child.
“Attention is the thing you pay for the most at expensive restaurants,” Jen says, and if Danny Meyer wrote the book on hospitality, it would seem as if Jen is writing the zine on it. You’ll receive that same level of attention from her, the sole front of house leader, whether you’re picking up a $100 order or asking her if they have a bathroom. Jen makes a point to introduce herself by name to every customer, stopping the often rushed downtown diners in their tracks. If you hang out in Sonoratown’s tiny storefront long enough you’ll see her force free tacos on loyal regulars over blaring Norteno music. After the fourth time you politely decline a free agua fresca, you’ll probably get a Topo Chico hidden in your to-go order. The look on customers faces is confused but grateful, like finding out your Old Navy chinos are on sale for $3.99.
Native Sonoran customers stumble in wearily at first, but are quick to gush after their first bite, that nostalgic rush of emotion like they just watched Marley And Me on the plane must make all those flour buying trips to Mexico worth it. Jen is more proud of the fact that she’s seen pregnant customers turn into moms, and infants move from the teet to the meat. She’s seen elderly regulars pass on, filling their last couple years with brief glimmers of charred pleasure, like a wheelchaired granny sucking down her rootbeer float at Canter’s. When Broken Spanish chef Ray Garcia, an ambassador for Mexican cooking in LA, came in to try what all the fuss was about, a starstruck Jen sent him home with her signature basket of freshly pressed tortillas and he invited them to come in and eat at his restaurant. Eager to return the favor he came out just after the barrage of plates hit their table with the same tortilla basket she had given him, this time filled with truffles to be hand shaved by Ray himself over everything. Jen was brought to tears, “he out hospitalitied us.”
208 E 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90014