Tropical Latino music flowed from speakers I could not see. Columns of Colorado-looking rock rose to my left until they met a wooden trellis that jutted out above me. Ivy dripped down from the wood as if trying to touch me or maybe the tables. Through the ivy, I caught glimpses of wispy white clouds floating in a deep night sky. I began to believe I was dining in the skylight patio of an Italian villa or in a waterfront restaurant on a Greek Isle. But, I was not. Instead, I had just plopped myself into a booth at Sonterra Innovative Southwest Grill on South Tejon Street, right in the middle of downtown Colorado Springs. That ivy was fake. So were the potted plants set atop the dividers between each booth. That sky was actually just a ceiling painted to look like a sky. The faux patio decor seemed more fitting for a Mediterranean restaurant, but if I tried hard enough, I can rationalize being somewhere in the Southwest.
Nonetheless, I did not go to Sonterra for the décor—I went for the self-titled “Innovative” Mexican food. True to the name, the menu offered an abundance of different and original Mexican themed dishes. I started off with the Smoked Duck Taquitos. I passed the time until my first dish arrived with a bowl of chips and a tomato-based salsa. Chips and salsa do not need to be tampered with or made innovative. Thankfully, Sonterra did neither. Their version of this traditional Mexican table snack was all it needed to be: solid and reliable.
Smooth romantic jazz replaced the Latino music as the waitress set my appetizer down in front of me. The duck taquitos came rising up vertically from a circle of guacamole, in the center of a long rectangular plate. This thoughtful layout was finished with a garnish of radish dropped atop the towering taquitos. The crunchiness of the taquito shells contrasted the tender texture of the duck. The duck was delicate and muted flavor. I could not help but inhale the four taquitos in a few bites. I used the chips in the bowl to scoop up the remaining guacamole. Sonterra offered guacamole as its own menu option. They prepare it tableside, and the finished product is well worth the show.
I recognized the sound of steel drums emanating from the walls. The tropical Latino music had returned, and quickly, sad saxophone took the lead. This corny romantic music coupled with the dim lighting and faux patio decor would work great for a classic dinner date. They also offered a selection of margaritas, which come in both glass and pitcher sizes, for those who need a little or a lot of liquid courage to woo their date.
With the romantic atmosphere set, I got to work on the Braised Callicrate Pork Belly Carnitas my waitress had just set down in front of me. Again, the presentation was clean and elegant. The carnitas, shredded pork, were shaped in two squares that sat atop a grilled pineapple round and a bed of coleslaw. The dish also came with a side of beans and two tortillas folded up into a triangle. The carnitas had a brittle char on the outside and were tender on the inside. Their sweetness—enhanced by the pineapple—was checked with a spicy chile powder seasoning cooked into the brittle crust. I did not make a fajita out of the carnitas, beans and tortillas, as was suggested, out of fear that I might taint the meat’s deliciousness. Only after I finished the carnitas did I scrape up the beans and other coleslaw-carnitas detritus with the two tortillas. Although I opted out of ordering dessert, they had some special offerings, such as their Bananas Foster, which they make at the table, like the guacamole.
I approached the menu with a traditional appetizer-then-entree format because I did not have anyone to share food with. If you eat at Sonterra with a group, I suggest ordering a few of their appetizers and tacos to share with the table. Everything is shareable—even the carnitas I ordered.
Sonterra is relatively pricey for a college student. Its about $25 to $30 dollars per person if one orders one appetizer, one entrée, a dessert, and a drink. Sonterra is best saved for a special occasion with a date. But, it can also satisfy a craving for some sophisticated Mexican food with pitchers of margaritas—in fake candlelight, under fake ivy and a fake night sky.
Sonterra Innovative Southwest Grill is located 28B South Tejon St. in downtown Colorado Springs, about a two-minute drive from campus. They are open six days a week and are closed on Sundays.