Michelle Salazar de la Rocha and Sam Napier’s Sonora Taqueria, London’s takeaway-only tortilla specialist, began life as Pollo Feliz in February 2020, a small stall in Hackney’s Netil Market. One of the city’s true lockdown success stories, after exponential growth through summer 2020, Pollo Feliz rebranded as Sonora Taqueria last autumn, with beef dishes and tacos, based on recipes from the northwest region of Mexico from which Salazar hails.
In an Instagram post this week, Salazar announced that the stall would close this summer, so that she and Napier could take a break. In it, she spoke about the pressures of waiting for a visa, going through the “difficult, expensive, frustrating, scary, and demoralising” process of immigration, and the waiting game that leaves people like her in a state of limbo.
Eater London subsequently asked Salazar about that application, the rise of Sonora as one of London’s most-loved food businesses of the past 18 months, her long-awaited return home to Mexico, and what the future looks like for Salazar and her partner in London.
What is the process of getting a visa like while running a restaurant in a pandemic?
When we first opened in February of 2020, I was under a start-up visa that was intended for me to stay in the U.K. for two years to try and get the business up and running. By the time we finally started to feel a bit more secure in our work and be a bit financially stable, that visa expired and could not be renewed. So we had to apply for a different one on the basis of mine and Sam’s relationship. I’m very lucky to have just met the requirements for that one, but I’m not gonna lie, it was frustrating that all of my work and effort had no influence in my legal status here. I’m only able to stay because Sam is English.
In your Instagram post you mention that you haven’t been able to see your family in more than two years. What does it mean to go home, especially at a time when everything is so precarious?
This has been the longest I’ve spent without going home or seeing my family. In this time I’ve realised that, with distance, I’ve become more Mexican. I’m much more fond and nostalgic about my roots than ever. This is maybe one of the reasons why Sonora began. I needed to fill up that void with a tangible memory of home. So finally being able to go is incredibly important for my mental and emotional health, but also for the business. I need to touch base and soak up the sun for a while if I intend on continuing to represent my home in London.
What do you hope to bring when you return back to London?
We have plans to bring more equipment that will help grow our operation. But we also want to take the time at home to learn from the people that are making the food we’re trying to represent, get ideas, and reconnect with my town and its traditions. There is so much I haven’t explored yet but I always feel the need to relive it and experience home with more of a “food business” focus. Also, I hope to come back with more energy, motivation, and a fresh perspective of my life here.
In 2020, you launched Pollo Feliz, took a break and then opened Sonora Taqueria in September and the demand for tortilla packs was so high that you had to pull them from retail. The first year was wild. What are the pressures of closing a place that is so well loved and popular?
There’s always a level of fear and anxiety about closing your business even if it’s for a short period of time. You get so consumed by it that stopping for whatever reason feels like a shock to the system. I think the paranoia of feeling that customers won’t care about you if you are not a consistent or regular part of their lives is solely rooted in that anxiety. I think we are much more in control, or at least aware of the root of that stress and can make better decisions for ourselves. In this case, going home and seeing my family completely outweighs any anxiety about our business. It’s simply much more important to me and it’s taken me some time to learn that. Even though we are incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved, our personal life is more of a priority than serving tacos on the weekend.
You write, “The waiting game doesn’t just mean me not having an official legal status in the place I live and work in but also means I can’t leave until a decision has been made.” It must be difficult having this hang over you, suspended in a sort of limbo. What is that like?
I think it is a rollercoaster of emotional stress with more downs that ups. Initially, while going through the application process, it was incredibly stressful to try juggling that and running a business and have a personal life as well. The application process is very expensive, confusing, and demoralising. It really makes you question whether or not you want to go through with it, even though my entire life is here in the U.K. Then, because the waiting process is so long (due to Covid), I kind of forgot about it for a while. I had to stop thinking about it on a daily basis but it was always something lingering above me, this cloud of doubt that is stopping me from living my life and seeing my family.
By the end of the six month waiting time (as indicated by the Home Office), no one had contacted me yet so we had to set an official enquiry. It came the next week. My file was probably just sitting on an overworked official’s desk.
Since February 2020, you and your partner have had to transform constantly, whether it’s from Pollo Feliz to Sonora Taqueria, tortillas delivery, or adjusting to lockdown surprises — what was something you learnt from all this?
I think we’ve learnt to adapt and be flexible with our ideas and expectations. Much more than we would’ve been otherwise, probably. Because we have transformed into different things so much already, going away and coming back with new ideas feels much more doable.
Will there be new dishes on the menu, anything from home that you might want to introduce London to?
There’s so much we haven’t tapped into yet. I won’t go into specifics, but there’s a whole food tour of my town planned when we go back. If you check our social media, you might be able to get hints of what we’re planning for our taquería. Sonora is not even close to its final form.
If 2020 was a year of surprises, what is 2021 like? And what do you, if at all, expect full reopening to bring you?
This year has been focused on staying put and being more consistent. Our team has grown, so there’s a lot more responsibilities to deal with but also, our dreams and plans are bigger as we learn of what we’re capable of. We hope reopening later in the year will bring our regulars back and keep things exciting.