There’s a new Mexican restaurant in downtown Watertown.
Sonora’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant has opened in the Best Western in the space known for years as the Carriage House. New owners of the hotel have refurbished the rooms and remodeled the bar and restaurant space.
The dining room is clean and bright, with some Mexican doodads on the walls and sturdy new chairs and tables throughout the room. The bar is part of the dining room, so we began there.
A margarita was in order; it tasted fine. The green salt on the rim of the glass was a little distracting. We were about to break into a chorus of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” — then we found out that they had a decent selection of Mexican beers, which our friendly bartender was eager to show us: Modelo, Tecate, Pacifico and Negra Modelo. We decided to put those off to try with dinner.
There was a table set up in the bar area with chips and salsa as well as a tray full of cheese, crackers and raw veggies. The chips were homemade, or at least fried in-house, not out of a bag. Two salsas were offered, mild and hot (but not very). Both were tasty, with lots of tomato flavor, but not much Mexican flavor — missing cilantro, for one thing.
Once seated at our table, we got to look at the menu. Quite comprehensive — almost overwhelming. Appetizers listed Mexican favorites alongside chicken fingers, french fries and cheese sticks (what are those things doing there?), soups, salads (Buffalo chicken salad?), fajitas, vegetarian platters, tacos, enchiladas, carne asada and a long list of combination platter choices.
There were also several things we’ve never heard of. What’s a lorenza? A carmelo? Huivalai?
For appetizers, we tried the taquitos ($5.95), the Mexican version of an egg roll. You get three of them, chicken and cheese rolled up in a tortilla, then deep-fried to a slightly greasy crispness. They came with a red sauce that tasted like spaghetti sauce, so we requested additional salsa and that did the trick.
The guacamole dip ($4.25) was excellent — lots of thick, mashed avocado with chunks of tomato and bits of red onion interspersed; just the right amount of garlic. Yum. Double yum on more of those warm, crisp chips that came alongside.
Soups, priced at $4.95 for a cup, $5.95 a bowl, were disappointing.
Here’s the menu description of Sonora’s soup: “chicken, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and potatoes topped with our blend of cheeses, avocados and tortilla strips.” Sounds great, right?
It was a bowl of mush, mostly shredded chicken, no other identifiable ingredients, topped with soggy strips of fried tortilla, served lukewarm. Pretty awful.
“Asopado de camerones” was worse. It was shrimp, rice and vegetables in a tasteless broth. You know the saying, “That soup tasted like dishwater?” This soup tasted like dishwater. Grossly undercooked rice didn’t help matters any.
Chipotle burrito ($10.95) consisted of two very skinny rolled flour tortillas containing strips of grilled chicken topped with queso sauce, basically a cheesy white sauce. Surrounding the chicken was an interesting chipotle sauce, more sweet than smoky.
Camerones rancheros ($16.95) was good. A dozen grilled shrimp were sautéed with tomatoes, onions and diced green peppers, then covered with “spicy ranchero sauce” that tasted more like Italian marinara sauce than a Mexican red sauce.
The “go-ahead-make-my-day”-with-spicy-hot-food person at the table ordered Mexican stew ($12.95). It sounded interesting — sliced steak mixed with onion, green bell peppers and chopped tomatoes. The beef was tender and tasty and the veggies, identical to the veggies on the camerones rancheros, were nicely cooked. Undercooked rice and barely warm refried beans accompanied.
Earlier, our waitress told us that everything in the kitchen was fresh and made from scratch — “nothing here comes out of a can,” she said. So Mr. Heat asked if the kitchen had a fresh jalapeño pepper they could send out. He likes to keep one handy so he can self-adjust the heat of his dishes.
She returned, having to tell him that there were no fresh peppers on hand; “they use ones out of a can.” Yikes, how embarrassing was that? So he told her that would be OK, bring one or two canned ones out.
Continuing with the food, we had a two-combination platter ($10.95) consisting of a chalupa and a tamale and added on a lorenza for an additional $4.75.
Their chalupa is pretty much what Americans expect Mexican food to be. They used a fried flat corn tortilla rather than making it from corn-based masa dough, then topped it with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, guac and cheese. One person at the table likened the chalupa to an open taco.
Their tamale is described as a corn husk filled with ground corn and shredded beef, steamed and covered with queso sauce. There was a lot of the soft ground corn stuff (maybe it was supposed to be masa?) overpowering the beef. It wasn’t steamed in a corn husk (that would have added flavor), but merely placed on top of a folded over corn husk — for looks, we figured.
The lorenza resembled the chalupa, a flat fried tortilla with pieces of marinated and grilled beef with beans, lettuce and tomato and cheese on top, minus any cilantro and Mexican seasonings.
Had to try a chili relleno ($3.95), a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, battered and deep-fried, topped with the marinara-tasting ranchero sauce. Hey, if you closed your eyes, it tasted like eggplant parmesan! And it did if you kept your eyes open, too.
I got the Pancho’s Plate ($14.95) — grilled chicken and shrimp on top of their “signature” (undercooked) rice, covered with their “homemade” queso sauce, which wasn’t like the queso sauce that was on the other dishes. It tasted a lot like Cheez Whiz with jalapeño peppers. The chicken and the shrimp were nicely seasoned and relatively tasty. I’m still picking rice out of my teeth.
Speaking of Galapagos, the canned jalapeño that were promised never arrived, so we asked our waitress one more time. “Well you’re not going to believe this, but they don’t have any canned peppers back there either.”
Then we brought the matter of the undercooked rice to her attention. “Oh, not again,” she sighed. “That happened last week, too.”
Desserts that we sampled were quite good. Our waitress recommended the homemade flan ($2.95) — said it was the best she’s ever had, and she didn’t steer us wrong there.
Flan is a baked custard made with eggs, cream and vanilla, and Sonora’s was very, very good. We could have done without the blobs of watery whipped topping and the cherries that surrounded it, but the lines of chocolate on the plate were a nice touch.
Churros ($4.95) are 6-inch-long fried dough sticks rolled in sugar and cinnamon. These were crunchy good, served with vanilla ice cream and watery whipped cream drizzled with chocolate sauce.
Dinner for five cost $115 before tip. The Mexican beers ($3.25) complemented dinner nicely and were served in chilled beer glasses.
Sonora’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant has been open a little over a month. I’d cut them some slack if it weren’t for the fact that they’re a family-owned franchise with other locations in Rochester and the Finger Lakes. The pattern is in place and the recipes, you would think, have been perfected.
But where are the hot peppers? The cilantro? The cumin? The chili powder?
And what’s up with undercooked rice and lukewarm food and ranchero sauce that tastes like spaghetti sauce?
Maybe things will get better with time. I hope so, for their sake. Meanwhile, there are other Mexican restaurants nearby that don’t have “authentic” in their name, but the food they’re serving is definitely more authentic than Sonora’s.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sonora’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant
(located in the Best Western)
300 Washington St.
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
We enjoyed the taquitos and the guacamole dip a lot. Same with the flan and churros for dessert. Nice selection of Mexican beers, too.
RATING: 2 forks