The best dish at the new Sonora Grill isn’t a taco.

That’s a kind of stop-the-presses declaration. Co-owners Alejandro Castillon and Conrado Badilla made a name for themselves with truly dynamite tacos, starting in the summer of 2011 at their Midtown Global Market counter of the same name.

With their recent expansion into a stand-alone, full-service iteration, located about 25 blocks to the east, Castillon and Badilla have enlarged their menu, and it feels as if they’re pushing tacos into small-plates land. What a smart idea, to give diners the opportunity to drop in and pair a locally brewed beer or a vivacious tequila cocktail with an array of seven carefully engineered tacos.

Most are served with tender corn tortillas, and they fall on a continuum that ranges from outstanding (woody roasted mushrooms paired with crunchy pickled carrots, pulled pork infused with mild guajillo chiles) to gotta-have (finely shredded beef tongue bathed in a feisty chipotle salsa) to more-than-decent (chicken, skirt steak). Not too shabby for four bucks a pop, right?

But back to that attention-grabbing dish. It couldn’t be more unassuming or more delicious, just a whole chicken, marinated overnight in an orange-dried peppers formula. A quick turn on the grill, followed by a similarly brief finish in the oven, takes the bird’s skin to a tantalizingly golden brown and coaxes the meat to all kinds of supreme juiciness.

It’s served with a few basic embellishment, and it’s an ideal family-style dining-out idea. That it also manages to be a bargain, clocking in at $18 — the menu’s top price — is icing on the cake.

Just like Mom’s

It’s easy to appreciate the Sonora Grill for what’s not on its menu, namely the rash of Mexican-American dishes that constitute the vast majority of Minnesota south-of-the-border restaurants.

Instead, we’re treated to tastes of the street fare that Castillon (he cooks) and Badilla (he runs the business) noshed on in their native Sonora in northwest Mexico.

Case in point: wonderfully sloppy pork hot dogs, split and grilled and smothered in a robust chili made with turkey chorizo and plenty of ancho chiles.

As with all of his sandwiches (don’t miss the one stacked high with that slow-cooked, mouth-melting pork used in the tacos), Castillon has the good sense to use gleaming, milky buns from the Salty Tart, his MGM neighbor; they’re one of the few items that aren’t prepared on the premises.

That investment in time, energy and expertise pays off. The basement prep kitchen stays busy with the daily labor-intensive task of making delicate empanadas, filling them with a gently seasoned mixture of ground pork, carrots, onions and tomatoes, serving them three to a plate over a swipe of punchy cilantro pesto.

Like most of the dishes coming out of the kitchen, they’re served on gleaming white plates with an emphasis on appearance. I can’t imagine visiting the restaurant and not ordering a round. Or two.

Ditto the superb guacamole. It’s named in honor of Castillon’s mother and based on her steadfast belief in guacamole simplicity. Each bowl is ultra-fresh, mostly creamy but with lumpy streaks and brimming with plenty of lime and salt and just a hint of garlic.

“I try to make it like Mom does, although she doesn’t put a garnish on top of hers,” Castillon said with a laugh. But her son the chef does, and the crunchy thin-sliced radishes, snips of Fresno chiles, bits of ruby red tomato and fragrant cilantro are a winning touch.

Some dishes are so meticulously composed that they could easily slip, undetected, onto the menus of Castillon’s previous employers, including Solera, Bar La Grassa and Barrio.

Salmon cured in tequila and dried chiles plays a starring role in a bed of spicy greens tossed in a bright citrus vinaigrette. A cool, colorful shrimp ceviche captured all the requisite texture and flavor notes. Avocado and mint temper the punch of snappy grilled prawns. All three are priced at a very reasonable $9.

Not everything works. Some of the seafood I encountered — a greasy skate taco, soggy tempura-style battered shrimp — tasted a bit past its prime. A deep-fried foray into the sushi roll falls flat. Eggplant fries, oily and flavorless, would have a very short shelf life as a State Fair attraction.

Beef and chicken skewers were tough and dry, and a promising plate of fragrantly seasoned thin-cut ribs disappointed with chewy, fatty meat. As for dessert, skip it.

Here’s something to look forward to: weekend brunch, which should materialize in about a month.

Goodbye, Embers

With an assist from Redesign Inc. of Minneapolis, Castillon and Badilla have done everything but participate in a cleansing ritual sage burn — wait, maybe they did — in scraping away the building’s origins as an Embers franchise, a project initiated by previous tenants (Molly Quinn’s, the House of Lalibela) but never quite taken to this welcome conclusion.

OK, that dramatically vaulted ceiling still has a vague “Remember the Embers” vibe, and wide-open space is torn from the Urban Restaurant 2014 template, with lots of repurposed woods and heavy, rough-hewed plank tables. But the results are handsome and comfortable and totally suit the menu’s casual demeanor.

One complaint. The restaurant is a dry cleaner’s dream, and I’m not sure if the culprit is a lack of ventilation firepower, or air that’s permeated with molecules of a low-grade oil used in the deep fryer.

Given the occasionally mushy, aftertaste-plagued fried foods, I’m thinking it’s the latter. Whatever the cause, I never left the place without mentally adding a bottle of Tide Plus Febreze Freshness to my shopping list.

Badilla and Castillon don’t quite have a grasp on the myriad intricacies of running a full-service restaurant, leading to erratic waits, flubbed orders and other service mishaps.

But they certainly seem to have an innate understanding of the rhythms of hospitality, evident by the long, skinny tortilla chips and the deceptively complex chipotle-ancho chile salsa that greets each table, a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gesture that never fails to impress.

Yes, energetic, lighthearted Sonora Grill is a lot of fun, and given this punishing winter, that’s a quality we need in abundance.


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