Yellow cheese and the golden taco: Baja Sonora, Long Beach’s beloved Cal-Mex institution


“That’s how I roll: If what I’m doing is in the grey and you have an issue, come back to me when you have it in pure, unadulterated black and white.”

These are the words of Baja Sonora owner Mary Sophiea, going on over 20 years of courting and serving East Long Beach with plates slathered in guacamole, yellow-and-white cheeses, hard shell tacos, and other delectable creations of the Cal-Mex restaurant that, for those outside of Latino family tables, often serve as their introduction to some idea of Mexican food.

And this sentiment from Sophiea really exemplifies her entire vibe. Despite truly alarming stresses—she has suffered multiple heart attacks (which she dismisses with a flick of the wrist), had to live off her savings for nearly two years after the renovation of Baja Sonora seemingly kept getting pushed back, and constantly deals with the judgment of so-called Mexican food aficionados (“That’s not Mexican food!”)—Sophiea owns what she’s been through and owns what she offers.

She’s herself, unapologetically. And it is that precise attitude which has also turned Baja Sonora into a space that has been an essential cog in the functioning of its surrounding community.

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Mary Sophiea and Michael Mendelsohn owners of Baja Sonora out front of their business in Long Beach Thursday, August 29, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Every city and town in Southern California has one, largely thanks to the 1937 opening of Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino. In my tiny, perched-on-a-mountain hometown of Big Bear, it was La Montaña. And in Long Beach, it is Baja Sonora.

Hard shell tacos—”tacos dorados,” the golden tacos—stuffed with meat, iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and ungodly amounts of yellow and white cheeses. Quesadillas oozing with those same quesos. (Colby Jack? Cheddar and Jack? Who cares?) For me and my small mountain town, this was Mexican food.

Then, leaving the nest and coming to Los Angeles, I realized—or mistakenly thought—it wasn’t Mexican food. Those aren’t “real tacos,” my Chicano friends would tell me after getting back from seeing their families in Jalisco or Michoacan.

Real tacos, preferably, came with soft corn tortillas and were topped with nothing but meat, onions, cilantro, and salsa. If you were to create a fried taco, you would stuff it first, typically with beans or rolled with meat, and then fry it. You don’t just fry a tortilla to create a shell. That’s not really a taco.

And yellow cheese? How very dare you.

But this is the Cal-Mex restaurant or “Mexican-American” restaurant if you want to stumble down that very slippery slope (let alone get caught up in Tex-Mex). Mexican food is arguably the world’s most stereotyped cuisine as well as one of the most misunderstood and complex. But there is one reality with it: Mexican grub’s migration above the Rio Grande has made it a food impossible to shove into a cubby hole. This becomes especially true once the A-word, “authenticity,” is thrown out there. Your “authentic pozole” is but a part of the four variations I’ve had in Mexico (which is not to mention the many others). And your “authentic taco” is but one of many stops along the diaspora of tacos.

“Like me, a Mexican American, you, [Golden Taco] are often derided by our cousins down south as inauthentic or pocho,” Gustavo Arellano once wrote of the maligned hard shell taco. “But the very first tacos to enter America were crackling tacos dorados, or ‘golden tacos.’ Which means you are more native to this land than any of your flaccid competitors.”

Baja Sonora—like a better quality cousin of its old-school predecessor, Pancho’s on Pacific Coast Highway—is one of Long Beach’s “golden taco” staples.

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Mary Sophiea and Michael Mendelsohn owners of Baja Sonora in Long Beach Thursday, August 29, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

“I’ve had so many people walk up to me and say we’re the ‘Cheers’ of Long Beach,” Sopheia said. “And I am proud of that, of that specific accomplishment: being a home for people. I know we’re not super big like Lola’s or Super Mex, but we’re home.”

At 68 years old, Sophiea (along with co-owner Michael Mendelsohn) have witnessed Baja Sonora go through the oftentimes very bearing weight of our hyper-connected world. She is not only witness to the restaurant’s growth within the continuously-altering Mexican food scene here in SoCal—from the onslaught of the food truck to spaces like Taco María earning a Michelin star—but also bear witness to the space becoming a place of comfort. She watched hundreds of patrons pass through during and after the 9/11 tragedy to find solace. She has seen people use the space as a wake. She has watched it become an extension of Long Beach’s spirit.

That extension includes her employees, many of whom have been with her since Day One.

“All my cooks own homes, and I’m damn proud of that,” she said. “They’ve supported me so I have to support them. Pay it forward, pay it forward…”

But with a business and property landscape that is in constant flux, Sophiea is both skeptical about taking some downtime and quietly frustrated with Long Beach landlords which, in her eyes, are becoming more and more disconnected from the cities they partially own.

“It’s not getting easier,” she said. “I think about retirement and laugh because we’re in a time when my landlord doesn’t even live here. Most landlords don’t live here. There’s no way I can retire.”

And with her ever-so-direct way—that same, admirable dismissal of problems and frustration that makes her so affable—Sophiea shrugs it off.

“It is what it is, the most important thing is that I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished with Baja Sonora. I don’t know how many people get to genuinely say that—say they’re proud. But I am.”

We share that pride, Mary—and now, if you don’t mind, slide on over some of that crackly, cheesy Golden Taco deliciousness.

Baja Sonora is located at 2940 Clark Ave.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

 

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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