Review: Sonoratown in downtown L.A. lives up to the hype

Caramelo, Taco, and Chivichanga. Photo by Jay Keyes.

I don’t see how the neighbors aren’t complaining about the thick plumes of meat-sodden smoke billowing from Sonoratown.

I speculate it is because this is their favorite spot for lunch.

The alluring aroma emanates from a mesquite charcoal grill, over which the restaurant’s cooks meticulously toil while cranking out fillings for Sonoratown’s tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and other tortilla-blanketed goodies.

Is Sonoratown grilling up the best carne asada in Los Angeles? While top tier Mexican fare in L.A. often involves transforming dull, discounted meats and CostCo-quality produce, Sonoratown’s owners insist on starting with high-quality ingredients that are traditional to the region from which they draw inspiration. Here, the carne asada consists of chunks of salted costilla (beef short rib) rather than the traditionally marinated arrachera (skirt steak). The grill makes a big difference. Here’s a secret you already know: most carne asada in southern California would not pass muster in Mexico. Beef grilled on a flat-top in Mexican cuisine is called bistec, not carne asada. Sonoratown’s use of costilla over a blistering hot mesquite-fired grill results in little charred nuggets of beef filled with juices and flavor that you cannot get from arrachera or flank steak alone. Best yet, unlike L.A.’s midnight taqueros who also grill over mesquite, Sonoratown’s carne asada is smoky without picking up that familiar taste of wet mulch that is sometimes present in tacos de asada from amateur street operations.

There are several hand-to-mouth delivery considerations for Sonoratown’s carne asada. The most ideal of these options is ordering it in the Burrito 2.0 ($8.50). The software within the super-sized Sonoran-style flour tortilla includes pinto beans, chunky guacamole, gooey jack cheese, and a zippy salsa made with potent chiltepin chiles. The burrito is finished on the grill, resulting in a browned, sturdy tortilla with a savory, smoky taste. If you prefer your flour tortillas stretchier and sweeter, order the costilla in a Taco ($2.50) or Caramelo ($6) (a giant taco of sorts); Neither are grilled after assembly.

Burrito 2.0 and Chorizo Taco. Photo by Jay Keyes.

I would argue that as outstanding as the carne asada is at Sonoratown, the reason to come here is the flour tortillas. I succinctly needed to describe their tortillas to a friend recently, and I settled on “the inside of a croissant.” Flour tortillas are a grotesque joke in the U.S. thanks to mass-production by soulless appropriators. Due southeast, there is a 400-year heritage of making flour tortillas from round-grained winter wheat grown in the Sonoran desert in Mexico. These tortillas are paper-thin yet heavily dosed with lard such that they practically melt in your mouth. Sonoratown’s owners buy white wheat flour from a supplier in San Luis Rio Colorado in Mexico to replicate this eating experience. Being L.A.’s most popular flour tortilla purveyor reportedly requires them to smuggle sacks of flour across the border in a pickup truck since, by law, they are limited to two bags per trip for “personal use.”

Other meats are available at Sonoratown, including a shredded chicken guisado, grilled tripa (beef guts), and a special Sonoran chorizo produced for Sonoratown by San Pedro’s Chori-Man. Of the non-asada meats, I’d rank the chicken as the best. Be careful with it, as spicy chicken drippings are good to eat but bad to wear.

Taco de Chorizo. Photo by Jay Keyes.

To wash everything down, you need to order the Coconut Horchata ($4). If that doesn’t appeal to you, you are broken — though perhaps not unworthy of Sonoratown’s superb sweet ‘n sour Mango-Tamarind Agua Fresca ($4). Alternatively, you could choose not to order anything else and instead let the brilliance of Sonoratown’s carne asada and flour tortilla linger with you for that much longer.

Food/Décor/Service: 4.3/3.6/NA

Taco Scores: Taco de Costilla (96), Chivichanga de Pollo (96), Taco de Chorizo (85), Caramelo de Tripa (80)

Jay Recommends: Costilla Burrito 2.0, Taco de Costilla, Coconut Horchata

Sonoratown208 E 8th St, Los Angeles, CA 90014; Sunday through Thursday from 11:00am-9:00pm, Friday through Saturday from 11:00am-10:00pm; (213) 628-3710;

Taco de Costilla. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Caramelo de Tripa. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Inside the Costilla Burrito. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Sonoratown’s Mesquite Grill. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Mango Tamarindo Agua Fresca. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Inside Sonoratown. Photo by Jay Keyes.
Sonoratown in Downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Jay Keyes.