Three years ago, Jennifer Feltham and partner Teodoro Diaz-Rodriguez Jr. opened a tiny taco shop in downtown L.A.’s Fashion District paying homage to the region where Teo grew up. The idea for Sonoratown was simple, to serve tacos in the style of San Luis Río Colorado, an area in Northern Mexico famous for its carne asada cooked over mesquite wood fires and tortillas made from the flour unique to Sonora.
“Tio and I started off with $7,500 each, which we scrimped and saved while working at Bluewater Grill in Redondo Beach,“ Feltham tells L.A. Weekly on the packed patio of Sonoratown. “We took $15,000 of our own money and went in with a $30,000 small business association loan to open the shop in our neighborhood in the menswear district downtown. That was the biggest financial liability I’d ever had in my life and I was petrified about being able to pay it back if things didn’t work out. We figured if it floundered we’d spend the next 10 years paying it back and start all over again. But it was worth a try.”
Little did the couple fresh out of high school ever dream that their small business would shoot off like a meteor over the Sonoran desert and explode into one of L.A.’s most recognized restaurants.
“In the beginning, I was going once a month to get flour from Sonora and would just put as much as I could fit into the back of my truck and drove it back here, five hours both ways plus another five hour wait at the border,” says Feltman as customers line up to wait 30 minutes for a taco. “Doing it once a month wasn’t so bad, but then it changed to twice a month. Every two weeks I’d go and bring back 1,000 pounds, which is the maximum capacity for my truck. We tried using American flour, but the tortillas didn’t come out the same. We also bring back tapin chiles every time we get the flour, the most popular chile in Sonora and foraged by hand. If we didn’t have them here in our salsa, Sonoran people would riot, they expect it to be on the menu.”
After Netflix featured Sonoratown in the Taco Chronicles documentary, the Torrance native had to increase the trips to every weekend and expand the tiny space. Having lived downtown for nine years, Feltham and Diaz-Rodriguez Jr. were highly sensitive to gentrification and their neighboring residents.
“We took over the space next door, which used to be a tailor’s shop. He’d been here for about 10 years, and then his lease came up,” says Feltham. “We talked to him, because we didn’t want to displace him or anybody in the neighborhood. We want to be part of the neighborhood, not change it. We made a deal to lobby our landlord and give him a space around the corner in the same building for a cheaper price, because Los Angeles Street frontage is more expensive than 8th Street frontage. It was part of the renegotiation of our lease — which our landlord was eager to get — to take care of our neighbor Gilbert. We helped him and put down some money to help him with the build-out of his new space. So he’s still in the same building as before and doesn’t have to lose any customers.”
While she may not admit it, a large part of Sonoratown’s success is due to the love, genuine caring and infectious energy Feltman radiates, enough to light up the Sonoran desert.
“Here in downtown everybody has a place,” she says. “That might also be why we have a little friction with the different cultures and movements and politics running up against each other all of the time. But that’s what makes us special and strong. The more we can learn how to negotiate publicly and privately and be represented, the stronger our neighborhood will become. We can only get better for it.”