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Sonora Grill

By Scott Millsop

Sonora Grill - Seafood and Steak - Bar & Grill

Everything here is a surprise. You’re visiting a restaurant in a shopping center built in the 1960’s and currently living between slow decline and vibrant renewal.  The neighbors include a Dollar Store and a Thrift Store, a laundromat and a Mexican grocery.  And in this midst is the Sonora Grill Seafood Steak Bar & Grill. It is a high-end dining establishment without the pretension that you might find accompanying food this good. Ethnoshers tend to be seeking character, flavor, variety and storylines. Sonora delivers all that and more.

It is a burst of color.  That starts with the bar, just inside the door.  Bright colors, accent lights in a room of tall ceilings.  The sort of primary colors - reds, blues, oranges, yellow, green - that are associated with Mexican culture.  

Photos by Bobby Tewksbury

The dining room is long and large.  It would easily accommodate a wedding reception, but it also offers intimate booths and small tables.  Relaxation is the vibe.  Some nights there is a band. It’s impressive.  There is an obvious presence of planning.  It is not designed to squeeze in the maximum number of guests or laid out to encourage a fast-dining experience so the tables turn over.  It’s not a corporate design.  But it’s also not the “make do and do your best” room we often see following our immigrant-owned theme.  Sonora has a budget.  And a plan. And know how. Dedication. Pride. 
 

Let’s talk food.  OMG!
 

Sonora, Mexico is a state just below Arizona and New Mexico, but it has a 2500-mile shoreline on the Gulf of California.  It is a new center for manufacturing. It is also mystical and ancient. It is where Castenada met Don Juan.  It is a playground of islands and resorts, with a long agricultural history inland and a thriving seafood industry along the coast.  Steaks and seafood!  Senel Medina, the managing partner at Sonora Grill says “It’s Mexican food.  But it’s the kind of Mexican food you get at high end resort restaurants.”

The platter they brought us to photograph had Lobster, Calamari, Octopus, Shrimp cooked four ways, Oysters and Clams.  All of it was delicious but there was a Ceviche (seafood in citrus juices) that set a new foodie standard - for me - in Dayton.  And let’s note that Steakhouse is in the name for a good reason.
 

Senel Medina is the managing partner here.  There is an ownership group out of the El Rancho Grande chain of restaurants, so there is good business logic at work.  Senel was managing their warehouse - and apparently doing a good job of it - because they came to him and asked what sort of new business was needed.  He said, “A grocery store.”  And they said, “OK, go find a place and let’s do it.”  They made him a partner.
 

So we’re back to that Mexican grocery story we talked about in the first paragraph.  It’s called Guadalupana.  It’s tucked away in a neighborhood in Riverside near Beavercreek.  Not high visibility, but it doesn’t need visibility.  It’s a destination.  Starting in 2018 it has served the Mexican community.  But as Dayton has become known around the world as an affordable and immigrant friendly city, the market has expanded.  So, the store becomes a place for exploration.  Senel tells us, “Honduras. El Salvador. Guatemala. Puerto Rico, all those all have different native cuisine, different native products.  Every country has different products. Even if it’s the same thing, like sodas, it is different.”

 

You get a sense of deep experience talking with this man.  This store, this restaurant, he did this on purpose.  He worked his way up from a cook in a Chinese restaurant.  So for him Sonora is not just a business.  It’s something done right.  He crossed the border into the US at Tijuana in 1988.  It was a different time, but it was still a struggle.  He had a brother in Dayton, so he made his way here. It took a while.  One of the struggles when he arrived was the unavailability of familiar foods.  They actually had to go to Chicago to get proper tortillas back in the day.  Senel - among others - changed that.

 

The meat and seafood counter at Guadalupana will inspire home cooks.  There are cuts of meat you won’t find at Kroger’s.  There are prepared but uncooked foods like taco meat, barbacoa.  Marinated steaks.  They have a wall of hot sauces.  The Latinx stores have different suppliers so there is novelty.  And because the idea of the store is driven by affordability, the prices seem good.  There was a restaurant in the store from the beginning, but originally it was just a taco restaurant.  It evolved into the  Sonora Grill Seafood and Steakhouse just last year.  So the Ethnosh visit is part of the discovery process for all of us.

 

Come thirsty too.  They take their drinks seriously.  This will be Ladies Night at the bar. A heads up is in order here.  Some of the seafood dishes are prepared with shells still on, so there is a certain amount of hand shelling required.  It adds to the flavor and to the sensuality of the experience.  There is plenty of mmmm- oh my, and a bit of grrrrrr, along with some whoa!, but don’t wear white.

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