Some of my most delectable food memories take me back to Mexico. I’ve traveled and lived for short periods far and wide in that country, but I especially relish camping trips through Sonora with my father, who lived about 10 miles as the crow flies from the Sonora/ Arizona border. Those adventures would always begin with a stop at our favorite taco stand in the border city of Nogales, after which we’d make our way south, stopping at Hermosillo before heading southwest to Bahia Kino and then eventually on to Guaymas and Huatabampo on the Sea of Cortez. All of these trips were peppered with the excellent beef and abundant fish and seafood that Sonora has to offer. Ice-cold cervezas were 15 cents, and I don’t think we ever paid more than $2 for a meal. So, I was intrigued when I heard about Sonora Grill in Ogden. Would it take me back to those treasured times with my dad, or would the restaurant be Sonoran in name only?
The creation of owner Steve Ballard and executive chef Chris Mortenson, Sonora Grill is accented with subtle south-of-the-border touches such as bowls of dried chiles at the counter, lots of candles and soothing earth tones. However, it’s a distinctly American restaurant in scope and scale—a large, sprawling place with multiple dining and banquet rooms, a bar/lounge, patio, and a walk-up take-out taco window. Thankfully, the designers eschewed the kitschy ambiance that mars so many Mexican restaurants here; I didn’t see a single sombrero or piñata, nor did I hear a mariachi band. Be forewarned, though: Sonora Grill is noisy on weekends when the place is jammed. I didn’t even realize there was piped-in Mexican pop and salsa playing in the background until I stopped by the sparsely populated restaurant for a late lunch.
Meals at Sonora Grill begin with a basket of chips and salsa. In this case, the “chips” are whole, fried corn tortillas that you can break up into bite-size pieces— a nice touch. The homemade salsas are superb: There’s a lively bright green tomatillo salsa and (my favorite) a rich, smoky, red salsa made with roasted morita peppers. A lunchtime meal of tacos al pastor ($9.95) and a cold Negra Modelo ($4.95) was very satisfying. Tacos al pastor is a trio of open-faced tacos on warm, homemade corn tortillas piled with nicely charred rotisserie-grilled pork, and topped with diced grilled pineapple, onion and guacamole (I disdain cilantro, so they left that off). The tacos came with sides of so-so refried beans (not enough lard, if any), orange-colored rice, and bland avocado cream sauce in need of a hit of chiles. The cool, sweet pineapple helped to balance the somewhat bitter (but delicious!) charred meat. I won’t say Sonora Grill’s tacos are as good as those I remember from Mexico, but they’re much easier to access. Speaking of easy access, at the walk-up window, you can get two tacos to go (salmon, al pastor or carne asada) for $3.99. Oddly, a 20-ounce bottle of soda there is only $1.50; in the restaurant, a glass of Pepsi runs $1.99.
Sonora Grill boasts what is, as far as I can tell, Utah’s first ceviche bar, offering four different types of ceviche from the regular menu plus a daily chef’s special. My first encounter with ceviche was at the seaside town of Huatabampo, in Sonora, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Sonora Grill’s ahi tuna ceviche ($10.95) is its least interesting: tuna sliced sashimi-style and served with a mild ginger-lime sauce and avocado slices. Much more intriguing from a flavor profile is the San Carlos rock shrimp ($9.95): rock shrimp, onion, mint, tomato, cilantro and tomato-lime juice. It comes in a cocktail glass looking like a shrimp-studded Bloody Mary. There’s also mahi mahi and swordfish ceviche, but the best we tasted was a chef’s special scallop ceviche of bay scallops on a bed of greens with pieces of pineapple and spicy chile-spiked popped corn on the side. Your best bet is the ceviche trio sampler: a choice of any three ceviches for $15.95.
Guacamole ($8.95) is prepared from scratch right at your table. Unfortunately, it comes with a tedious Q&A about avocados:
“How many types of avocado are there?”
“How much fat does an avocado contain?”
“Is an avocado a fruit or vegetable?” Some people probably get a kick out of this; I found it irritating. However, a very tasty Granada Margarita ($5.99) helped: That’s a Margarita made with premium tequila, pomegranate juice, triple sec and fresh lime. It’s pomegranate-colored, and makes “guacamole class” palatable.
The grilled skirt steak carne asada ($22.95) lacked sizzle. It was cooked as requested—medium rare—and generously portioned, but tasted under-seasoned (there was no salt or pepper at our table) and a tad tart, presumably from a lime-based marinade. The sliced steak came with excellent homemade flour tortillas, standard refried beans and grilled corn-on-a-stick slathered with too much cotija cheese for my liking. Opinions were split on the achiote salmon (I liked it). A large salmon filet ($19.95) came blessedly not overcooked, perched on a banana leaf and topped with a mild achiote sauce and black bean puree on the side. Also on the side, strangely, was steamed broccoli, something I don’t recall ever encountering in Sonora—or in all of Mexico, for that matter. But what I’d have really liked to see on the menu is sarandeado, the famous Sonoran wood-fire-cooked sea bream. That would have made me feel like I was back in Sonora.
2310 S. Kiesel Ave.