Sonora, one of the outstanding London restaurants of 2020, will return after a six-week break with a new regional speciality on the menu, and grand tortilla plans. After one month and-a-half in the northwestern region of Mexico that co-owner Michelle Salazar de la Rocha calls home, she and co-owner Sam Napier will reopen their London Fields taqueria on 24 September. By late October, they hope to have taken delivery of and installed the machines they need to make a dedicated Sonora tortilleria, with capacity to produce 1,000 gossamer-thin, then grill-puffed tortillas an hour, enriched with lard, goose fat, or vegetable fat, which sold in their droves throughout 2020’s lockdowns.
“The main goal initially? To open the hours we say we’re open.” Salazar and Napier told Eater. Having run a wildly successful operation built out of necessity — from the standpoint of tortillas, and often their fillings — on keeping little to no inventory day-to-day, they would often find themselves selling out early on a given day, which they deem both a success and a detriment. Having signed on a production space in Seven Sisters, and bought a mixer, divider, press, and cooker for tortillas to go in it, they hope that will soon be a thing of the past.
The larger goal, though, has always been to separate themselves into taqueria and tortilleria. “We touch every tortilla that we sell,” says Salazar, and “even though they feed into each other, the tortilleria operation always felt like its own thing.” With tortilla packs assuming the status of hyped sneaker drops last year, they are hopeful of building this new endeavour on the strength of its previous iteration, but “we need to work on inventory, which is a bit nerve-wracking.” It will also allow the duo to keep a greater fix on which tortillas are available, which they see as key to keeping diners coming back: “We see people have their favourite of the three options (beef, goose, vegetable) — maybe wholewheat, butter as well. Pork is delicious but not everybody eats it, and it means a lot to see people come back.”
For now, “come back” means to pick up tortillas at the stand, or through click-and-collect, but once the machines are up and running they hope to move into a more focussed retail operation. “Small. local stores — there are so many hoops for larger businesses like Wholefoods etc, so the focus is going to be on small but many,” Napier says.
In turn, taking the tortilla production real estate out of a fairly diminutive market stall offers new opportunities. They’ve installed a grill, a long-held ambition, because, as a Sonoran taco stand not serving carne asada — flank steak cooked very quickly and even more specifically over charcoal — is missing a rather large trick.
“That is the Sonoran taqueria — the stuff I was doing here in London is very differently presented back home,” says Salazar. “Barbecoa is normally a breakfast taco, and the things I was doing like the beef con chile are normally served in more specialised places — and often not in tacos.” Carne asada, meanwhile, is the centre of the Sonora taco universe, and accordingly, is subject to that litany of associations that live in the murky space between rules, preferences, and myths. The key tenets, Salazar says, are that it “goes on grill, and is unsalted. There are arguments about when to salt it because it’s such a simple thing that everyone has their “best” technique. It’s coarse salt, added when the blood is rising from the steak on the grill, then you flip. If you marinate the steak, in Sonora, you’re banned.”
In July 2021, Salazar de la Rocha told Eater:
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.
That same month, she went back home, for the first time in over two years, alongside Napier. “It’s exactly what we needed.” she says.
“It’s so far away that none of the problems here mattered at all. We got time to think about exactly what we wanted, think about what we were doing without the emotional stress and tiredness. Looking at the core, dispassionately, and thinking what we want to change. What exactly I want the taqueria to be, what a Sonoran taqueria is.”
Those six weeks, filled as they were with eating, have allowed her and Napier to focus in on the small contextual elements to Sonoran dining which, as easily as they can be introduced, can go missing over time. How meat is chopped, how the coals are managed, even how long tortillas stay on the grill. It’s telling that Salazar adds that while in Sonora, the cows’ composition makes flank steak the ideal cut, a British breed’s composition may mean that flank isn’t the right cut to emulate it — even though the false rules of authenticity would dictate that flank must emulate flank. In time they want to add tripas, which are not tripe but small intestines: “poached or baked then grilled. So rich, so delicious, very simple to do.”
Despite such significant changes, Salazar and Napier are sanguine about the restaurant world into which they are returning. “Things feel a bit more predictable and stable, but things have changed a bit since we left — the market is fully trading, it feels complete for the first time since we’ve been there. Before, stability was tied to capacity — we introduced takeaway tortillas, but then restrictions would hit, and the taqueria would become super busy again, and we couldn’t continue them.” With tortillas, barbecoa, and nopales staying on deck and carne asada joining the party, they’re excited for what the next iteration of Sonora will bring.