Just as the leaves began to hit their peak color for fall, a new full-service Mexican restaurant opened downtown. Owners Cora Smith, Tim Burkhead and Whitney Marx, along with chef Michael Mouser, launched Sonora Cocina Mexicana in mid-October on Patton Avenue in the space previously occupied by Artetude Gallery.
To make the dream of owning their own restaurant a reality, Smith and Burkhead often worked extra shifts in other Asheville restaurants and did online fundraising to raise the money needed to complete the art gallery-to-restaurant conversion. The couple, who have been in Asheville for about three years, have global backgrounds and experiences. “I’m originally from Seattle, [but] my dad’s Brazilian; I guess that’s my Latin side,” says Smith, who speaks fluent Portuguese. Burkhead, whose family moved around for his father’s job, grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Mexico City and speaks fluent Spanish.
While the restaurant’s location next to the iconic Self Help Building offers a sidewalk-level view of Asheville’s familiar art deco architecture, the décor at Sonora is inspired by the north Mexican desert for which it was named. Smith painted the eye-catching mural of the double-headed serpent behind the bar, while currently featured artist Sofia Sanchez has a colorful display of calaveras (skulls) paintings in acrylics.
Sonora’s menu focuses on an interpretation of Mexican comfort food featuring tortas, tostadas, enchiladas, stuffed poblanos and, of course, tacos. Smith describes it as food “your abuela [grandmother] would make if you grew up in Mexico,” with an emphasis on house-made, slow-cooked sauces and fresh ingredients. “We want you to come in and have a meal with your friends, relax, have a good time and expect that kind of hospitality that exists commonly in Central and South America.”
Mouser, who goes by the nickname “Chef,” worked at downtown Italian restaurant Vincenzo’s until it closed in February 2015. He notes that Italian and Mexican cuisines share some common ground. “Mexican food, like Italian food, has a lot of stereotypes that are associated with tastes that people think they know,” he says. “When you have the traditional cuisine the way it’s supposed to be served, people’s minds are blown by the difference.
“We’re cooking with authentic ingredients and recipes that most people have never had in Asheville,” he continues. “One of my kitchen staff recently shared her own abuela’s recipe book written entirely in Spanish that was probably an inch thick. We plan on using many recipes from it as the menu progresses. With Mexican comfort food there is so much variety.”
Sonora sources from a variety of local and regional producers, including Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork of Goldsboro, but Mouser has a goal of making some items from scratch in-house. “I’m eager to make my own house-made chorizo, which is lovely when it’s served fresh,” he says.
He notes that the menu also offers plenty of vegan options, some featuring No Evil Foods products. “It’s really easy for us to be gluten-free and cater to vegans and vegetarians,” he says. “All the rice and beans are cooked with olive oil or vegetable oil instead of cooking them with a stock or lard like you traditionally would in Mexico.”
Mouser says one his favorite dishes is the authentic chilaquiles, made with warm white corn tortilla chips that are fried then tossed in sauce and topped with fresh cheese, onions, cilantro, a squeeze of lime and a sunny-side-up egg.“ My chilaquiles will put a smile on your face while they warm your heart,” he says. “It’s essentially like a Mexican breakfast served anytime during the day. I love to utilize great traditional dishes and show them as a more refined plate [then] introduce them to people who have never had it before.”
Sonora has a full bar with the specialty being hand-pressed, fresh-squeezed margaritas. “I love margaritas, but I feel like people hear ‘margaritas,’ and they picture they’re getting that pre-made, packaged sour mix that gives you the headache and the heartburn,” says Smith. “The recipe for my margarita sour mix is 28 lemons, 30 limes, two oranges and three cups of sugar. That’s it.”
The bar’s flagship cocktail is the Dame Rosa, a spicy-salty-sweet margarita inspired by a Mexican watermelon and chili pepper-flavored lollipop called Rebanaditas. “We use Exotico Plata, which is a blue agave tequila, muddled jalapeño and fresh watermelon juice, triple sec with a chili salt rim,” says Smith. “So the cocktail really does take a lot of the same elements that are going on in the sucker.”