Defending champion Sonoratown aims for tortilla perfection

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KCRW and Gustavo Arellano’s second annual Great Tortilla Tournament is now underway, with 32 tortilla makers from across Southern California moving on to the second round this week. One of those advancing is Sonoratown , defending champions of last year’s contest. 

Inside Sonoratown before it opens for the day. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

It’s been an unprecedented year for the cozy taqueria in downtown LA’s Fashion District. Not long after winning last year’s tournament, the restaurant’s Sonoran-style flour tortillas were spotlighted in the New York Times . Noma chef René Redzepi paid Sonoratown a visit in order to try them for himself.  

More recently, Sonoratown was featured in a Netflix series called “ Taco Chronicles .” Immediately after the show released, hour-long lines began to form on the sidewalk outside. 

Sonoratown co-owner Jennifer Feltham says, "Everything has been pretty wild over here since then. But we are weathering the storm, and we're stronger than ever." 

Jennifer Feltham at Sonoratown. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Feltham and her partner Teo Diaz have doubled their restaurant’s space and increased staffing to meet demand. They now use 135 pounds of flour per day to make their tortillas, on which they serve all their tacos and burritos—compared to 25 pounds a day when they opened in 2016. 

Feltham says she’s been surprised by the surge of interest in flour tortillas, in part because of the gluten-free craze that was happening when Sonoratown opened. "So we opened up thinking it was probably a bad idea to have that be our foundational part. But just knowing that these things were very special to us, and it was sort of a big experiment to see if it would also be special to other people," she says. 

Sonoran flour power

Large and small tortillas. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW 

Sonoratown’s flour tortillas are thinner than most of the taco-sized tortillas elsewhere in LA. The flour is sourced from the Sonora region of northern Mexico, and the brand is Bonfil. "People at the mill have told me that it's an heirloom wheat that just specifically grows in northern Mexico, and that's why it's so special," Feltham says. 

According to Feltham, the flour used at Sonoratown results in a tortilla that’s soft and pliable, able to be rolled thin without losing suppleness.

In the kitchen, two women make all of Sonoratown’s tortillas. Julia Guerrero, affectionately known as Doña Julia, is the chief tortilla maker. Originally from Mexicali, she’s been making flour tortillas all her life. 

Julia Guerrero in an interview with Good Food. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Guerrero explains that when making tortillas for tacos, she starts with little balls of flour that get flattened by a press before they’re heated on a flat top grill. When it comes to the bigger tortillas for burritos, a rolling pin is required. The tortillas also get a sprinkling of flour to enhance their flexibility. 

A tray of balls of flour. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW 

Putting a ball of flour onto a food scale. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Throwing tortillas onto the heat. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Julia Guerrero making tortillas. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Feltham says some customers insist that tacos made with flour tortillas aren’t authentic. "Then I'll have to tell them, 'Well we don't offer you a choice. So if you'll try it, I'll even give it to you for free. I think you're gonna like it.' And almost always people do," she says. 

Ultimately, she wants diners to know that flour tortillas belong to Mexico’s culinary heritage just as much as corn tortillas. "There's a long history in Sonora of making flour tortillas, and people there are very proud of what they do in their culture, and I'm happy to be able to share that with Angelenos."

Sonoratown's 2018 trophy from the Great Tortilla Tournament. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

-- Written and photographed by Amy Ta, produced by Nick Liao 



Evan Kleiman