In February last year, Michelle Salazar de la Rocha and her partner Sam Napier, launched a brand new northern Mexican street food business in a small market on the edge of London Fields. In its first week of trade, the then-called Pollo Feliz, was hit by Storm Dennis. It would prove a fitting preview to a year full of surprises and challenges, but also successes and rewards — a year in which they sold over 30,000 tortillas.
Early recognition for a style of Mexican cuisine unknown in London soon gave way to a hugely successful flour tortilla delivery initiative, which by the summer would have the pair hand-making and bike-delivering thousands of units a week.
Then, in the late summer, Pollo Feliz closed and took a break. It reopened as Sonora Taqueria in September, focused not on the grilled chicken of Salazar’s family business, but tacos and the beef-centric cuisine of the northwestern Mexican region of Sonora itself: tacos made with chile colorado, in which chuck steak is stewed down with dried chiles and tomatoes, pulled beef chile verde, and quesadillas.
The demand for tortilla packs, probably the finest tortillas in the city, was so high that the duo had to pull them from the retail offering; by mid-November, Salazar was unable to make enough tortillas needed to serve the many new and old customers queuing each day for the taco menu. So, after eight months of surprises and relentless trading Sonora’s owners ended the year exhausted, announcing a month-long break on 5 December.
Ahead of reopening next Friday, 22 January, Eater sought to understand from Salazar what she and Napier learned in their first, wild year, as well as what’s in store for 2021.
With input from Napier where noted, here’s what she had to say.
Is there a big or any difference between tier 4 or national lockdown for Sonora?
“The only real difference is no alcohol [takeaway sales], which might affect foot fall. Other than that it’s hard to see what’s different between lockdown, tier 4 and even tier 3. It’s always felt like people in our situation have fallen through the gaps in terms of restrictions — the ‘market’ is closed in some way, but all the individual traders are open for take out food. Maybe people will actually stay home, but at this stage I doubt if anyone has the patience. Honestly being there sometimes it feels unfair (unsafe) for us to be untouched by restrictions with potentially big crowds while places with huge outdoor areas are forced to close.”
What have you got planned for Sonora for the coming weeks? Are you going to be doing tortillas again? And what new dishes can people expect?
“Just keep on with takeaway. We were gonna do tortillas again but a machine we were relying on is stuck somewhere in Serbia because of Brexit/coronavirus/tories so that’ll have to wait. We have though hired a couple new people, so we’ll open four days a week now. New menu: barbacoa, chicharron, machaca, in tacos or burritos.”
If you are tweaking your offering for lockdown 3, is that based on lessons learned during both lockdowns — which themselves seemed quite different — last year?
“What we’ve learnt is that when everything else has to close, people eat wherever else is open. I don’t trust at this point that any tier or set of rules will be in place for more than a week or two, so the only thing to do is function in a way that stays the same in different tiers — we’re lucky to not be tied to dining-in or delivery.”
Do you stand to receive any money in this latest round of grants from the government? If so, will it help? If not, what makes you ineligible?
“Probably not. Last time we should have been eligible for the £10,000 small business grants, but the market was technically valued as a car park so after months of paperwork and back and forth with the council, they told us they didn’t believe that if they paid us, the Government would reimburse them. In the same way that we fell through the gaps with regulations, we fell through the gaps with grants.”
What’s the biggest thing you learned in 2020?
“Personally we learned to run a business (kind of). We learned that throughout all this bs, what we do is genuinely rewarding. But really we learned that we live in a failed state run by a bunch of freaks that hate us all and want us to get sick or deported at the altar of the endless production and growth of a doomed nation. This didn’t need to happen! We could be living normal lives! (If the Home Office is reading this, Sam wrote this and Michelle loves England very very much).”
What’s your biggest hope for 2021?
“We hope for stability and the ability to plan long term. We want to run the same business for a few months and let it grow more organically. More than anything we want things to get safe enough to travel home to Sonora, see family and friends and have the biggest carne asada in the world.”
After opening on Friday, 22 January, Sonora will open Thursday — Sunday from 12 p.m. until 4 p.m.
Note: Sonora is opening a week later than first planned due to unforeseen circumstances, it announced on Instagram.