When Sonora Grill first opened in the Midtown Global Market in the summer of 2011, it did so quietly. Three buddies from northern Mexico hung up a sign and started grilling meats, mixing up sauces, and making hot dogs from scratch. Diners wandered past, noticed there was a new lunch spot in the market, and ordered a taco or two.
When the same team opened a sit-down Sonora Grill in the old Molly Quinn’s building on Lake Street in late December, things were very different. A ready crew of fans from Midtown had all but circled the date on their calendars so they could be waiting by the doors when they first unlocked.
And, if they had been at all worried that the Sonora crew would abandon their Latin fusion flair, their everything-from-scratch ethos, or their carefully pared-down approach to menu planning, those fans could exhale: The new Sonora Grill is the most natural evolution of the old Sonora you could possibly imagine.
Most of the original menu has been recreated at the new place — the Sonoran tacos known as caramelos, the bocadillo sandwiches, the unbelievable bacon-wrapped hot dog, and the pinchos (meat skewers, pictured above), here reborn as a single cleverly plated meal. (One dish that didn’t make the transition: the elote, grilled corn rolled in crema and cheese. Don’t tell anyone we said so, but a whisper campaign to get it on the menu might just work.)
Most of the new additions draw on chef and co-owner Alejandro Castillon’s 10 years of experience in kitchens like Solera and Bar La Grassa, known for their mixture of refinement and rustic hominess. To start off, a big, shareable plate of grilled shishito peppers (this year’s it capsicum?) with a mildly funky huitlacoche crema melds a little bit of trendier finer dining with Latin traditional flavors.
The mariscada is a deep bowl of seafood treats — a fat scallop, mussels, clams, head-on shrimp (which just might have been a little overcooked) — in a thick sauce… no, soup… no, sauce. In any case, it was rich and complex with tomatoes, peppers, and the flavor of the sea. And I really wished I’d had a proper soup spoon for it.
The ribs were cut in a way that was new to me: little medallions with a bit of bone at the center of each, a shape that could be finger food in the right company. These were delicious and smoky but, in the end, an almost overwhelming pile of meat on the plate.
Our waitress told us the beef empanadas were the best thing on the menu — a bold claim, but these were definitely a contender: fat little pockets of finely minced beef and vegetables in a buttery, crispy crust.
For dessert, while we loved the flan and the churros, we did wish the chocolate dipping sauce was thicker, with more cocoa-y bite.
Our only quibble with Sonora Grill is with their graphic designer. The menu’s list of main dishes runs straight into their list of appetizers and small plates. Only a discerning look at the prices would tell first-timers whether they’re ordering a meal’s worth or not. So, when the empanadas and a handsomely plated grilled jumbo shrimp arrived, the people at our table who had ordered them as mains took one look and immediately put in orders for round two.
In addition to the slightly more upscale platos, the new Sonora has two things that a Midtown lunch counter really can’t: a cocktail list and ambiance. You can still see, layered like a palimpsest, traces of the of the original Embers, Lalibela Ethiopian, and the short-lived Molly Quinn’s. But the low lights, rough dark wood, and attractive bar make this the sort of place where you might want to linger over jalapeno-spiked margaritas and a steady stream of caramelos. And on those days when you just have to have an eggplant bocadillo for lunch — and fast — there’s still the original in the Midtown Global Market.
Latin American restaurant in Longfellow
3300 E Lake St
Minneapolis, MN 55406
OWNERS / CHEF: Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Paredes / Alejandro Castillon
Daily 10am–3pm, 4–10pm
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $8–18
BAR: Full bar