Supposedly, the best tacos in Long Beach come from Baja Sonora, a cheapo Mexican restaurant in an aging airport-adjacent strip mall.
Every year, the suburban mini-chain (another location is in Bixby Knolls) wins the title from all the local papers and so after nearly a decade of living in the city, I figured it was time to venture to where the streets widen to explore this claim for myself.
I arrived in the middle of the lunch rush, unprepared for the chaos of Los Altos families and Douglas Park office workers scrambling for a quick meal. Year-round window paintings of sombreros and Baja Sonora's signature green chili logo dominate views from the front, and once inside, a cozy interior coated in tacky “fiesta” coloring further reminds that this is not a Mexican restaurant constructed for Mexicans.
No matter the demographic it is catering to, the menu lives up to its Baja Sonora name. Cheap prices and huge portions dominate a list of typical border-area Mexican dishes from enchiladas and grilled veggie fillers to the infamous two-pound burritos that require a knife and fork to go down.
Order at the counter and take a number, then spend the next five minutes stocking up at the centrally located salsa bar, a dangerous all-you-can-eat situation accompanied by stacks of bowls and baskets for taking what you want back to the table.
Like at Super Mex, the “chips” are whole corn tortillas that you have to crack apart on your own and their restaurant-style salsa has enough sweet-and-spice to be equally as addictive. But unlike Super Mex, Baja Sonora also makes other salsas: a green tomatillo one that beats their soupy red mild stuff and a 911 salsa that is hot without being salsa roja unbearable.
The best hard shell tacos in Long Beach, however, require none of the salsa to come alive. They cost $2.25 come on a fully loaded fried corn tortilla stuffed to excess with layers of meat, shredded lettuce and a fistful of orange and white cheese. Whether you order chicken, ground beef or carnitas, the meat is never dripping with sauce or coated in exaggerated spices, instead it remains just tender enough to carry its own juices, creating a minimalist foundation for the stratum of simple toppings above it.
But if Baja Sonora's gimmick-free taco is the best thing on the menu, other basics seem to fall short. The generic red enchilada sauce is missing the smoky sweetness I've come to crave and the beans have a pasty-gruel look to them that is almost as unappetizing as the blandness of its flavor.
The fact that many suburbanites in Long Beach swear this is the best Mexican food around is proof that gritty, authentic grub from across the border is hard to find in the gabacho parts of town. But until a roadside taqueria or some central Long Beach burrito heaven decides to move in above the 405, Baja Sonora is still the tops for quick, affordable, family-friendly Mexican fare.
Baja Sonora, 2940 Clark Ave. and 3502 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, bajasonora.com