Everything about the new Sonora Cafe on La Brea Avenue is larger than life. The room. The cacti. The banquettes covered in faux Indian blankets. Sweet salt-rimmed margaritas. Red-chile-dusted onion rings piled high as a cowboy hat.
When Ron Salisbury, whose family also owns the landmark Mexican restaurant El Cholo, decided to move his Original Sonora Cafe from Downtown to the old City space on La Brea, he took on a challenge: converting the cavernous, concrete space to something more enticing. In went rough wooden beams and rustic wagon-wheel-sized chandeliers to make the ceiling seem lower. At the front, an enormous fireplace warms up the room. And near the bar, eccentric canvas umbrellas stretched over bare branches look vaguely menacing.
The food at the new Sonora Cafe is just as flamboyant and overstated, definitely from the Jackson Pollock school of plate decorating. I can't help picturing cooks with squirt bottles fitted in holsters, giving the plates a spin and shooting arcs of red and green, dribbles of mud-brown and mahogany, squiggles of cream over the plates--one final squirt of red, just there, before the masterwork leaves the kitchen.
When it comes to cooking, the philosophy seems to be "more is better." More ingredients, bigger portions. Wherever a pinch of something would do, a fistful is used instead. The cooks in this large, busy kitchen are generous to a fault. Cut into the fat chile relleno , coated with blue cornmeal for a nuevo Southwest effect, and a river of rich, heavy, molten cheese (mozzarella, fontina and jack) flows out. As an appetizer, it could stop the heartiest eater in his or her tracks. Wild mushrooms and crab with a smoked chipotle cream sauce make an enchilada so rich and baroque, I long for the classic chicken in salsa verde.
Old, new, classic and borrowed ingredients are all mixed up in Sonora's Southwest cooking. That means tamales are stuffed not just with duck, but with duck confit and covered in so much dark red guajillo chile sauce that it's hard to find the fragrant steamed masa beneath--the real point of tamales. A special holiday tamale is cloyingly sweet, stuffed with turkey, napped with a rich mole and flanked with a compote of raisins, apples and prunes. Both versions, sorry to say, would have benefited from a lighter, less generous hand. Anything sweet tends to be excruciatingly sweet, like the honey-braised red cabbage served alongside the roast duck, which tastes as if it's been boiled in an entire jar of honey.
The only element used with discretion is chile. In fact, the waiters take pains to point out which dishes are a little spicy. Yes! Send the special lamb chops with chilaquiles this way! But when the plate arrives, despite the touted fiery chiles, there's barely a whiff of heat. This is tame stuff, what the menu calls a "contemporary styling" of Southwest cuisine with Mexican, Spanish and Indian elements. If the execution had more finesse, it could conceivably work. After all, John Sedlar pulls off a similar, albeit much more sophisticated, construct at Abiquiu.
But miniature quesadillas stuffed with brie and apple-wood bacon? Or the single worst dish I've eaten in Los Angeles: an icy cold, thick-skinned raw green chile, stuffed with goat cheese, jack cheese and--oh no, here they come again--sun-dried tomatoes? The filling is also chilly, and as gummy as a piece of Philadelphia cream cheese.
Still, I found a few reasonably good dishes on Sonora's menu: a graceful ceviche, the lamb chops, the 18-ounce cowboy steak. Achiote -marinated chicken piled on a crisp crimson tortilla makes an appealing tostada. The huge, lightly smoked "prime rib" of pork would be fine if it weren't so dry. A mixed grill of spice-rubbed venison and quail, on special, is delicious.
The mostly California wine list offers eight by the glass and a dozen half bottles. 1993 Sauvignon Blanc by Frog's Leap ($18) is sure to be a better match than Chardonnay with any of these dishes. And for reds, consider the 1992 Qupe Syrah ($21) or the 1989 Storybook Mountain Zinfandel ($22).
Desserts can be very good, especially a classic flan, smooth and rich, or the capriotada , a moist bread pudding studded with raisins. The best is the Southwest sundae served on a two-foot-long platter: scoops of vanilla ice cream cloaked in chocolate sauce, surrounded by berries, glazed bananas and a wonderful burnt caramel sauce and topped with a dollop of whipped cream.
The service is good-natured, and portions are generous: The plates cover the table, yet when the bill comes each time, Sonora Cafe never seems like a bargain.
Sonora Cafe, 180 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 857-1800. Closed Sundays at lunch only. Smoking permitted on patio. Dinner for two, food only, $41-$74. Corkage, $10 .