Sonora Grill in Midtown Global Market
Among the three of them, Conrado Paredes (above left), Alejandro Castillon (above right), and Fernando Arnanda (above middle) have ten years of restaurant experience. Alejandro Castillon is responsible for all ten of them.
Castillon says of the other two, “I’ve been training them. They’re working out pretty well.” He must be as talented a teacher as he is a chef, because in the few short weeks Sonora Grill has been open in the Midtown Global Market, the trio have been turning out some remarkably good food.
Paredes and Castillon, old college friends who met 14 years ago in the Mexican state of Sonora, are co-owners. Arnanda, Castillon’s cousin, pitches in. For the moment they make the up the entire staff of the tiny open-kitchen restaurant. They’re on the job seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. until after closing up at 8 p.m. Part of that punishing schedule comes from being a new restaurant. But it also comes down to Castillon’s commitment to scratch-made food.
While some chefs are content to stir some herbs into store-bought mayonnaise and call it aioli, Castillon starts with, as he puts it, “the egg.” All the salsas and marinades are made right in the kitchen, from fresh vegetables. The French fries are cut fresh every day. And the three make the turkey chorizo and hot dogs from scratch. Only the corn tortillas and sandwich buns are purchased, and the buns don’t travel far: the Salty Tart bakery, just across the market, makes them fresh.
“I’ve worked in very good restaurants,” Castillon says. “I didn’t train with stuff from cans.”
Very good restaurants, indeed. Castillon started in the kitchen at the Parkview Café in St. Paul, but was quickly snatched up by Solera, where he learned about Spanish cuisine. From there he moved to Barrio Tequila Bar, and then followed chef Erik Sather when he went to Bar La Grassa. That’s ten years of experience in some of the Twin Cities best kitchens.
The Spanish and Latin American influence of Solera and Barrio shows in Sonora Grill’s menu, which Paredes describes as a kind of fusion. “No item is from a particular country,” he says. “The chimichurri is from Argentina and we serve it with a Peruvian rice, cooked in a little coconut milk. It comes with beans cooked with guajillo peppers and Chihuahua cheese.”
Two of the most popular items so far are bocadillos ($7.90), sandwiches served with heaps of thick-cut fries, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The sleeper hit is the lightly fried eggplant bocadillo with chimichurri aioli. It proved so popular that the team quickly added eggplant fries – thick with a crispy batter coating — to the menu.
The Pork Guajillo Bocadillo (pictured above) is also popular. Castillon uses a mix of dried ancho, guajillo, and chipotle peppers in the marinade, giving it a deep smoky flavor, and then cooks it low and slow — for as much as six hours — until it’s fork tender. (“That’s nothing!” he says. “The tongue I cook for 12 hours.”)
Four types of skewered meat, known as pinchos ($8.50), are offered, including the same marinaded pork, shrimp in a red tempura batter, chicken with a Mexican mojo verde sauce, and a beef with chimichurri sauce rivals the slow-cooked pork in tenderness. A forkful of beef, smoky beans, and lightly sweet rice is as lovely a bite as you’ll find at any Latin American restaurant in the Twin Cities right now.
The tacos on the menu, served on small corn tortillas, are called caramelos ($2.50) because, as Paredes explains, “Where we’re from, if you ask for a caramelo instead of a taco, the cook already knows that you want cheese.” The perfect three- or four-bite snacks come with pork, skirt steak, chicken, tempura shrimp, or that 12-hour tongue. Castillon takes as much care with the accompaniments as he does with the meat, whether it’s perfectly sautéed onions, sweet pickled red onion, or silky smooth cilantro aioli.
Even the salads aren’t throwaways: The tender, heavily spiced, and perfectly cooked tilapia tops a bed of truly fresh greens tossed with sweet pickled onions. And the housemade hot dog (above) — which could be just any old hot dog in a bun and still attract plenty of lunchtime business — is sliced carefully down the middle and each side is wrapped in a slice of bacon. Chopped tomatoes and chimichurri sauce make the perfect cooling accompaniment.
In his ten years in professional kitchens, Castillon has learned not only how to make great food, but how risky the business can be. Isn’t this a tough time to be opening a new restaurant? Castillon shrugs off the idea. “There’s always business for the good stuff,” he says. “I want people to eat fresh, good food. You’ll always have business when you have food like that.”
Latin American restaurant in Midtown Global Market
920 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55407
OWNERS / CHEF: Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Paredes / Alejandro Castillon
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $7.50-$8.50